PORT CHARLOTTE — Two years ago, Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings had to replace Carl Crawford in leftfield. Last year, Jennings took over for B.J. Upton in center. But this season, it's Jennings' turn to be … Jennings. While there always have been natural comparisons to former Rays star outfielders Crawford and Upton, Jennings has the tools to make his own mark. "He can do anything he wants to," says Upton, now with the Braves. "That guy is very talented. He can hit for power, hit for average. Sometimes it takes a little bit to put it together. But he has all the ability in the world." Jennings, 27, racked up career highs in many categories in 2013, his second full big-league season, including home runs (14), RBIs (54) and extra-base hits (51). Jennings, though, didn't feel like he played up to his capabilities and said he needs to be more consistent. He hit .252, with an infield fly rate of 12.5 percent and 115 strikeouts with 64 walks. But the Rays have been impressed with what they've seen from Jennings this spring, from the way he has driven the ball to how driven he is.
"I think this is the year you see Desmond Jennings shine," bench coach Dave Martinez said. "I know he's had really good numbers in the past in the minor leagues, he's done well in the big leagues. But I think you're going to see Desmond this year put up some really big numbers, I really do. He's very confident, he's healthy, he's ready to go."
Jennings was rolling, a catalyst in the leadoff spot, until a fractured left middle finger in August forced him to miss 12 games. A little anxious when he got back, Jennings hit just .153 in his first 18 games. But he bounced back with a big September, with three homers and 13 RBIs and a .925 OPS.
"I definitely feel like I was focusing more, more locked in on pitches," Jennings said. "If I play like I did in September, if I play like that in April to October, it'll be a little different."
Manager Joe Maddon said Jennings is still learning, and he knows he can get better. Jennings, who had 31 steals in 2012, dropped to 20 last year. As much range as Jennings has shown in center — and Maddon believes he can win a Gold Glove — he made three errors last season, snapping a streak of 262 games without one.
To Maddon, it's all linked to Jennings improving his on-base percentage (.334 last season).
"Once he starts doing that, everything else is going to really take off," Maddon said. "His base-stealing will get better, his confidence will drive up, you're going to see him do even better stuff on defense. If he can arrive at that 35 percent at least getting on base, this guy will become an elite player. He's on the borderline of that right now."
Like Upton, who had three 20-homer seasons with Tampa Bay, Jennings boasts pop in his bat. "Incredible power," Maddon said. "He's hit some of the longest home runs we've had."
Maddon said Upton, Crawford and Jennings are all "superior in regards to athleticism" and can create havoc on the bases. Jennings said he'd love to hit leadoff, though he could share those duties with left-handed hitting David DeJesus.
"From my perspective, that's the most important spot, to set the tone, get things started the right way," Jennings said. "I feel like that's what I want to do. But I'm willing to hit wherever. I just want to be in the lineup every day and I want to win, so if that means I hit first or I hit 11th, I just want to be out there."
And just be himself.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.