PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Of all the potentially significant storylines unfolding this year for the Tampa Bay Rays, there might be none more intriguing than that of Desmond Jennings.
Given what he accomplished in a partial season a season ago, Jennings could help set the tone for increased offensive production for the Rays — and do it from a leadoff spot that has traditionally been a revolving door in the lineup.
For the past two campaigns, manager Joe Maddon has tried numerous other candidates at the top of the order in hopes of generating a steady spark — from catcher John Jaso to designated hitter Johnny Damon to center fielder B.J. Upton and even a brief stint by slugging third baseman Evan Longoria in an effort to snap him out of a slump in 2011.
But with Jennings, poised for his first full season in the majors, the Rays might finally have found a quintessential leadoff hitter: a guy with burning speed, good base-running ability, some impressive pop and — when he’s in the groove — a knack for making something happen at the plate.
His audition after being called up in late July could hardly have started better. Jennings got off to a torrid start, hitting .354 with an on-base percentage of .446 after 12 games. He kept his batting average above .300 through the first week of September before starting to lose steam. He fell into a slump that saw his batting average dip steadily until season’s end to .259.
Playing more combined games than he ever had before no doubt took a toll. But the 6-foot-2, 200-pound left fielder and heir to franchise fixture Carl Crawford still posted some eye-opening numbers: in 247 at bats, he notched nine doubles, four triples and 10 home runs, not to mention 20 stolen bases in 26 attempts and a slugging percentage of .449.
And by the time the playoffs arrived, Jennings seemed to catch his second wind. In the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers, he had five hits in 15 at bats (.333) including a double and a pair of homers — not bad for a young player on the hot seat.
Maddon hasn’t named Jennings his leadoff man or made any lineup decisions — that’s what spring training games are for. But wherever he winds up, there’s reason to believe the soft-spoken 25-year-old from Birmingham, Ala., will build on the body of work he established last year. And that can only mean good things for the Rays.