Finally Healthy, Rays' Jennings Makes Fast Impression

After putting together one of the best seasons in the minor leagues, the Rays told center fielder Desmond Jennings to relax this winter and that's exactly what he's doing.

Just three days after the Durham Bulls defeated the Memphis Redbirds to win the Triple-A championship, Jennings was back home in Birmingham, fishing with some friends.

"It was nice," Jennings said about winning the championship. "I've never done anything like that before, not on that level. It was a real good experience and I've got a smile on my face just talking about it right now."

Jennings has many reasons to smile this winter. Laid back and soft-spoken off the field, Jennings is the opposite between the lines—a live wire that draws observers in with his athletic build and standout tools.

Jennings started the season with Double-A Montgomery where he hit .316/.395/.486 over 383 at-bats with 25 doubles, eight triples and eight home runs. He was selected for the mid-season and postseason all-star teams and was named the Southern League MVP.

He also showed what he can do in the national spotlight when he started for Team USA in the Futures Game and stole three bases.

"He was hands-down the best player I've seen all summer, no doubt about it," an American League scout said. "He showed me 70 range and he was running balls down everywhere—left field, right field. You just need one outfielder, almost."

A promotion to Triple-A didn't slow Jennings down a bit—in fact, he actually put up better numbers during his time in Durham. Between the two stops, Jennings strung together one of the finest seasons in the minor leagues. The 22-year-old hit .318/.401/.487 with 31 doubles, 10 triples and 11 home runs. He walked as many times as he struck out (67 each) and stole 52  times as he struck out (67 each) and stole 52 bases in 59 attempts. He stole third base 15 times and even stole home against Chattanooga on April 15.

Jennings' talent was on display on Sept. 3 at Charlotte when he went 7-for-7 with a double, three RBIs and a stolen base as the Bulls knocked off the Knights, 14-3. The performance put Jennings' name in the history book, as he tied an International League record for most hits in a game.

"I was seeing the ball good," Jennings said of the performance. "Everybody was seeing the ball good, I think we had like 20 hits and 10 or 15 walks. I guess I just squared a few balls up and had six singles. It was just one of those days, I guess, and a few things went right for me. Everybody in the lineup was swinging it well that day."

While the extra-base hits and stolen bases stand out, the most important stat for Jennings this year was probably 132—the number of games he played. Coming into the year, Jennings had played 179 total games over parts of three seasons.

Injuries hampered the last two seasons of Jennings' career. A 10th-round pick in 2006 out of Itawamba (Miss.) CC—where he was also an all-American wide receiver—Jennings missed time in 2007 when he needed arthroscopic knee surgery to repair a torn right meniscus. In 2008, Jennings missed time with a back injury and then dislocated his shoulder after getting 85 at-bats with high Class A Vero Beach.

"Desmond has always showed the potential to perform," Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "He's a wonderful athlete, he has a good head on his shoulders and has a good work ethic.

"You have to consider that this is really his first full season and he did it between the Double- and Triple-A levels at such a high level of performance."

As a premium athlete, speed is a big part of Jennings' game and it helps him both offensively, and on defense.

"That's the most important thing for me," he said. "I wouldn't have hit as good as I hit if I didn't have speed. Beating out infield hits and scoring runs by getting in scoring position and stealing bases, that's my game. I have to do it. It definitely helps in center field, too. If I could, I'd play defense all nine innings and let somebody else hit. I love running balls down in the gaps and taking hits away from guys."

As good as he was this year, Jennings knows there are still aspects of his game that could be improved—specifically getting better reads in the outfield and hitting the ball the other way.

"You can never get too comfortable, he said. "I'm not just going to focus on one thing, I'm going to keep doing what I've been doing and try to improve all parts of my game."

Rays fans are already dreaming of—and opposing hitters are probably dreading—the possibility of Jennings joining Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton in the outfield in Tampa Bay.

"I felt like I was ready this year," Jennings said. "I'd love to play in an outfield with Carl and B.J. I think we'd have the lowest percentage of balls dropped. We get along good, I talk to them every once in a while and hopefully I'll be up there playing with them soon."