This article is part of our John Sickels' Column series.
Report on Desmond Jennings
The Tampa Bay Rays farm system continues to produce talent at a rapid rate. While Wade Davis and Jeremy Hellickson are pitchers to watch for 2010, the best position player is outfielder Desmond Jennings, who should appear in Tampa sometime next season. He's the type of player fantasy owners tend to have a deep interest in, since he can steal bases. But unlike many speed demon type players, Jennings can do other things to keep himself in the lineup.
Jennings was drafted by Tampa Bay in the 10th round in 2006, out of Itawamba Community College in Mississippi. He was better-known as a football player in college, but the Rays were attracted to his speed and strength. He showed off the former in droves in rookie ball, hitting .277/.360/.390 with 32 steals in 56 games for Princeton in the Appalachian League after signing. Promoted to Columbus in the South Atlantic League for 2007, he hit .315/.401/.465 with 45 steals, 45 walks and 53 strikeouts in 99 games. He missed time with a knee injury, but his performance was extremely impressive and he was expected to make a lot of noise in '08. Unfortunately, injuries intervened again, a shoulder problem limiting him to just 24 games for Vero Beach in the Florida State League, where he hit just .259/.360/.412 with five steals. Jennings returned to full strength in '09, dominating the Double-A Southern League and Triple-A International Leagues, regaining his status as an elite outfield prospect.
TRADITIONAL SCOUTING REPORT
Jennings is a 6-2, 180 pound right-handed hitter and thrower, born October 30, 1986 in Birmingham, Alabama. His best tool is pure speed, rated at a 70 on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale. Unlike many speedsters who rely solely on their natural ability, he uses his speed extremely well, getting great jumps and reading pitchers very effectively. The speed helps him in the outfield, where he shows terrific center field range. Injuries have sapped his arm strength, which is average at best, but he has good defensive instincts and can certainly handle center field at the major league level. Although Jennings isn't a huge guy, he has wiry strength and decent pop in his bat: he is not a slap hitter, and will knock an occasional home run to go along with his shots to the gaps. His strike zone judgment is very good, giving him a strong walk rate to go with his high batting averages, making him an ideal leadoff man. He makes contact and isn't overly vulnerable to strikeouts, another positive trait. About the only real negative for Jennings is health: knee and shoulder problems have dogged him in the past, though he was durable enough to play 132 games this year.
Jennings hit .316/.395/.486 with 37 steals in 42 attempts for Double-A Montgomery this year, drawing 48 walks against just 52 strikeouts in 383 at-bats. Promoted to Triple-A Durham in early August, he hit .325/.419/.491 with 15 steals in 17 attempts, 19 walks and just 15 strikeouts in 114 at-bats. His Triple-A performance was even better than his Double-A performance, which is obviously a positive sign. His composite line was .318/.401/.487 with 52 steals in 57 attempts, 67 walks and 67 strikeouts in 497 at-bats. His excellent stolen base success ratio indicates that his speed will play at the major league level, and I love the BB/K/AB ratio. His current MLEs mark him as a .270/.340/.400 hitter with the ability to steal 40-50 bases in a full season. I think that is a fairly conservative projection that he'll be able to exceed in his peak seasons.
FANTASY INVESTMENT VALUE
The Rays tend to move their prospects slowly, and Jennings is likely to receive a good dose of Triple-A to begin 2010. An outfield of Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Jennings would certainly provide outstanding defense if you shifted Upton over to right field to enable Jennings to play center. That's theoretical at this point, but in any event Jennings' combination of speed and on-base ability will make him very valuable for a fantasy owner. It may take some time for the investment to pay off given the roster uncertainty, but it's a good investment to make.
Article first appeared 11/1/09