Desmond Jennings’ potential is tantalizing.
The Rays’ Double-A Montgomery center fielder has a combination of elite athleticism, speed, strike-zone discipline and feel for hitting that few prospects in the minor leagues can match.
The 22-year-old’s early-season performance isn’t too shabby, either. Through 13 games, Jennings is batting .377/.431/.679, including four doubles, three triples, two homers and six steals in six attempts. Jennings went 5-for-6 with a triple on Saturday, then followed up the next day by going 3-for-3 with a triple and a home run. That makes yesterday’s 1-for-3 with a home run, a stolen base and a hit-by-pitch look modest by comparison.
Jennings has an excellent approach at the plate, which has led to his walks being nearly equal to his strikeouts the last two years. He stays balanced at the plate and keeps his head locked in, then has the hand-eye coordination to regularly put the barrel of the bat to the ball.
“Very good strike zone management,” Montgomery manager Billy Gardner Jr. said. “He doesn’t get fooled very often. He gets on a fastball good, he stays on the ball well and he uses the entire field to hit. He’s got some jump in his bat—the ball comes off his bat really well.”
With all that Jennings has done early in the season, perhaps his most exciting play came at Chattanooga on April 15. With Dodgers lefthander Scott Elbert on the mound, Jennings took off and used his explosive speed to steal home.
“He stole home plate, and I didn’t realize until I read some blogs the next day that it was Jackie Robinson Day,” Gardner said. “When you’re in the heat of the battle, you don’t think of that type of stuff. You just look at the opportunity that presents itself during the game. It was a situation where we had runners at first and third with two strikes on a lefthanded hitter against a lefthanded pitcher, so we felt like it was a good opportunity to steal a run here. The pitcher had a pretty slow movement with a high leg kick, and we set it up so that once he picked his leg up, if he threw over to go ahead and get a jump.”
Beyond his value at the plate and on the basepaths, Jennings has the plus-plus speed to be a weapon on defense as well.
“He covers a lot of ground out there,” Gardner said. “I haven’t seen him get into a bad route yet. His arm is accurate and he can play shallow center field and go back to the ball well. He’s the type of exciting guy who can beat you with the bat or he can beat you with the glove.”
It’s not big news that Jennings can hit, run and field well. The major barometer for him this season won’t be a rate stat but a simple counting stat: games played. Jennings played only 24 games last year before having surgery on his left shoulder, one year after missing the final month of the 2007 season to have knee surgery. If he shows he can stay healthy for the entire season, he’ll be among the game’s elite handful of prospects.
Thomas Gets Going
Tony Thomas is adjusting to Double-A quite nicely.
The Cubs’ righthanded-hitting second baseman faced a challenge in the second game of the season, going against hard-throwing Marlins lefthander Sean West. No problem for Thomas, who went 4-for-5 with a double and two home runs, with both jacks coming against West.
Thomas, a 2007 third-round pick who hit .266/.320/.400 in 495 plate appearances last year in the high Class A Florida State League, is off to a .349/.431/.581 start through 51 PAs for Tennessee in the Southern League.
"I think I’m more confident in myself this year," Thomas said. "I know what to expect the whole season going into it."
Thomas’ at-bat against West Tenn lefthander Robert Rohrbaugh (Mariners) in the sixth inning on Monday could be an early indicator of the improvements Thomas has made with his two-strike approach. Thomas got behind in the count 1-2, then saw a steady feed of breaking balls.
"He tried to get me to chase because that’s what I’ve been known to do," Thomas said. "Last year, I’d get myself out chasing pitches outside of the strike zone."
This year, Thomas has closed his stance and shortened his stride. But with two strikes, Thomas has opened his stance, choked up on the bat and tried to shorten his swing. After fouling off a series of pitches from Rohrbaugh, Thomas got a changeup left up in the zone that he launched over the fence for the two-run homer.
Kelly Still Sharp
South Atlantic League hitters are 0-for-3 trying to score runs against Red Sox righthander Casey Kelly starts. Kelly, Boston’s first-round pick last year, has thrown five innings of shutout ball in his first three starts for low Class A Greenville, with 12 strikeouts and two walks on the year. That includes yesterday’s start, when Kelly, 19, threw five shutout innings, allowed two hits with no walks and four strikeouts.
After starting the first nine games of the season at shortstop, Double-A Birmingham’s Gordon Beckham has played second base the last three games. Beckham made three errors at shortstop, then made one at second base on Tuesday. The first-round pick of the White Sox last year, Beckham is off to a .306/.382/.510 start in 12 games.
Beckham’s off to a a fast start at the plate, but teammate Dayan Viciedo is going through some early struggles. The 20-year-old Cuban third baseman is batting .191/.204/.213 in 12 games. Viciedo’s plate discipline is still raw, with only one walk in 49 plate appearances. The power has yet to manifest itself in games either; his lone extra-base hit is a double in the fourth game of the season.
Delmonico Catching On
It would be hard to do better than Tony Delmonico’s Opening Day performance. Delmonico, the Dodgers’ sixth-round pick out of Florida State last year, went 3-for-4 with a home run and two triples on April 9 for low Class A Great Lakes. Through 12 games in the Midwest League, Delmonico is batting .282/.462/.615.
"He seems to hit to all fields; he’s got power to all fields," Great Lakes manager Juan Bustabad said. "Sometimes they try to throw it inside to him and he’s really turned on it. He’s hit the ball into right-center for a triple, he’s hit balls up the middle for a game-winning hit and he’s just a spray hitter. He’s very disciplined, he’s got a lot of walks and he’s getting on base."
While scouts see the potential in Delmonico’s bat, they were less sanguine on his defense at second base in college and last year in the Rookie-level Pioneer League. Delmonico’s learning a whole new set of defensive responsibilities this year after the Dodgers converted him to catcher last fall during instructional league. He’s spent seven of his 12 games behind the plate for the Loons, easing into the position while also spending time at first base and DH. So far, Delmonico has thrown out two of seven basestealers, committing one error and two passed balls.
"We’re trying to get him in at least three to four times a week," Bustabad said, "and the other days that he doesn’t play, he catches a lot of bullpens, works on blocking balls, the transfer and throwing to the bases and stuff, so we’ve got a little routine for him that our catching coordinator Travis Barbary told us to do with him, and that’s what we’ve been doing. Every time he catches, he starts to feel a little more comfortable. He catches a lot of bullpens, so he’s one of the catchers down there learning to catch, learning every pitcher. Every pitcher’s different. Some guys have a real good sinkerball, some guys their balls are straight, so he’s got to get used to it."
For a 17th-round pick from Messiah (Pa.) College, Chris Heisey has already exceeded expectations making it up to Double-A Carolina. Now it looks like the Reds’ 24-year-old center fielder might have a future in the big leagues in some capacity.
Yesterday Heisey did a little bit of everything, going 2-for-4 with a triple, a double, walk a stolen base and three runs scored, putting his season line at .326/.473/.674 through 13 games.
“He does a lot of things well,” Carolina manager David Bell said. “He’s a very well-rounded baseball player. He plays the game hard, plays to win and he does everything. He can run, he can hit, he has some power and he gets good jumps on the ball in the outfield.”
The six-foot, 200-pound center fielder doesn’t have a standout tool, but he gets the most out of his physical abilities with a good approach at the plate. Last year in high Class A Sarasota, Heisey had 57 walks and 69 strikeouts, batting .287/.381/.438 in 117 games before earning a promotion to Double-A late in the season for 19 games.
“You don’t really have to do much with a guy like that,” Bell said. “There’s no motivation involved—he has all that inside. He’s got that inner confidence and inner desire that you can’t teach.”
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