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Farm Futures: Jason Collette Joins RotoWire.com

Jason Collette

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

Nobody cares about your fantasy team. Deadspin wrote an article about it a few years ago and there is even a small Facebook group out there for those who dislike people talking about their fantasy team. You know who else cares even less about your fantasy team? General Managers. They do not care about your sweet keeper for this season and nobody has been more callous to fantasy managers this offseason than Tampa Bay Rays' GM Andrew Friedman.

Heading into this offseason, the only thing that was certain in Tampa Bay is that everything was rather uncertain heading into 2011. Year after year, the Rays organization would grade highly in the prospect rankings but since the club became a contender it ceased its proving ground status that it was as the Devil Rays under Chuck Lamar. It was Lamar and owner Vince Naimoli's vision to play for the now, as cheaply as possible most years. Carl Crawford was taken in the 1999 draft out of high school and was in the majors by 2002 to stay. Rocco Baldelli was taken in the 2000 draft out of high school and was the opening day center fielder in 2003. B.J. Upton was the second overall pick of the 2002 draft and yet 25 months later, he was in the major leagues at the age of 19 getting 159 at bats in the final two months of the 2004 season. Those three players were to be the franchise's outfield for the rest of that decade and the front office rushed to get them all to the big leagues as quickly as possible in an age of entitlement where a player's draft status determined their future.

That age of entitlement era was one of the first cultures that the new regime in Tampa Bay changed and that began with Delmon Young who had to wait (gasp!) nearly three full seasons before making his major league debut. Both Joe Maddon and Friedman made it quite clear at their Winter Meetings functions that there is no longer an age of entitlement in Tampa Bay and that everyone had to earn their spots regardless of pedigree. They specifically mentioned youngsters like Reid Brignac, Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings. The club traded incumbents Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza to free up playing time for both Brignac and Hellickson as both proved their merits at the big league level in 2010 as the club won their second AL East title in three seasons. However, they did just the opposite for Jennings when they recently signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez. Those two established veterans join an outfield/DH situation that already includes Upton, Matt Joyce, and Ben Zobrist giving Maddon five bat for four spots each night likely leaving Jennings standing out in the cold, the cold of the Durham Bulls outfield in April that is.

Let's be honest, given how much the Rays operate around the service clock, Jennings had at best a 50% chance of making the club out of camp. Evan Longoria, David Price and Wade Davis all suffered similar fates in previous seasons and Joyce himself was kept down the entire length of his rehab assignment and then some last season. In Jennings case, the case can be made that it is both for service time and for his own development.

In delaying Jennings from playing in the majors until sometime in early June, the Rays will control the rights to Jennings through the 2016 season. Jennings just turned 24 years old at the end of the 2010 season meaning his active years with the Rays will be ages 25-30, which will be his prime statistical years. This was not a luxury the Rays had with Crawford because of how aggressive the prior management was in promoting him so they signed a six year deal for $33.5M with him in 2005 that bought out all three of his arbitration years and his first two years of free agency. Even with all of that time purchased, Crawford leaves the Rays just past his 29th birthday. If the Rays were to do a similar deal with Jennings, they would control the speedster through his 32nd birthday thus ensuring they have him through all of his prime years and not losing him just past his peak as they did with Crawford if Jennings does indeed become "the next Carl Crawford" that everyone has labeled him as for a few years now.

Jennings gets that Crawford comp a lot because of a few things the two have in common. First off, both were celebrated prep football stars that spurned major colleges for baseball careers - Crawford spurned Nebraska while Jennings spurned Alabama. Secondly, and more obvious, both are blazing fast. That is essentially all the two have in common. Crawford was, as he is now, an amazing defender in the outfield but has historically been a rather impatient hitter who would hack at anything near the plate while he developed power. Jennings, on the other hand, remains a less-polished outfielder despite the speed to cover half the field on his own but has remained a disciplined hitter. Jennings has never had a walk rate below 9% in his professional career and in he owns a 11% walk rate along with a 15% strikeout rate and a .384 OBP in 1581 minor league at bats. The last big difference between the two is durability. Crawford rarely missed time as a prospect or as a big leaguer while Jennings' injury history reads like that of a football player.

-- Lateral meniscus tear (2007 - season ended in early August)
-- Left shoulder (2007)
-- Lower back (spring 2008)
-- Left shoulder (2008 - missed rest of season)
-- Jammed left wrist (spring 2010 - started Triple-A on DL)
-- Left shoulder (throughout 2010)

That's a knee, back, wrist, and a chronic shoulder problem and he has yet to even see more than a handful of at bats at the major league level. It is why he has averaged just 366 plate appearances a season throughout his minor league playing career that dates back to the 2006 season. He missed several games in Triple-A this past season with nagging shoulder pain that dated back to the injury from 2008 that caused him to miss all but 24 games that season. In fact, he has had just one season in which he has had more than 400 at bats and that was his phenomenal 2009 season that firmly planted him on fantasy prospect radars when he hit .318/.401/.487 in 497 at bats.

The shoulder issues showed up in his power as his .115 IsoP last season was his lowest effort since his rookie season in 2006 as he had but 34 extra base hits in 399 at bats last season and 25 of those were doubles. They also showed up in his splits, much as they did for B.J. Upton in 2009 following his own shoulder problems. That season, Upton hit just .190/.302/.270 against lefties in 189 plate appearances but has a career slash line of .269/.375/.435 against lefties in 843 plate appearances. Jennings had his own problems last year with reverse splits as he hit .198/.343/.291 in 86 at bats against lefties while putting up a .300/.368/.422 slash line against righties. 

If this was a simple issue of service time, there were cheaper alternatives on the open market that the club could have signed to bridge the gap until June. Jennings has a future in 2011 - but that future is very likely to be delayed until sometime in the summer unless there is an unplanned injury or unforeseen trade. The plate discipline that escaped 95% of his peers is firmly in his back pocket and he still has his blazing speed but he must prove to the organization, and fantasy owners, that he can once against hit with more authority and stay healthy. The concerns are obviously both there; otherwise, the Rays would not have gone out and signed Damon and Ramirez.
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