FORT MYERS — Desmond Jennings says that no matter where he goes, or whom he talks to, Carl Crawford often comes up in conversation.
Jennings, 24, the Rays' touted outfield prospect, has been expected for a few years to step in for Crawford in leftfield when the four-time All-Star departed. The two have often been compared because of their athleticism and their ability to wreak havoc on the basepaths and make special plays in the outfield.
Jennings may eventually replace Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox in the offseason, but he likely will start this season in Triple-A Durham. The Rays want Jennings to play, so with veteran leftfielder Johnny Damon signed for $5.25 million, Jennings might have to wait. But while he occupies Crawford's old spring training locker, and jokingly hopes something "rubs off," Jennings plans to forge his own path.
"I can understand the reasons (for the comparisons), as far as the athleticism," Jennings said. "But who is going to do things like Carl Crawford is doing? It'd be tough to do. I'm going to go out there and play my game and not worry about trying to be Carl Crawford. I'm just going to go out there and play, have fun and hopefully get some of the results."
After battling injuries the past couple of seasons, Jennings is finally healthy, and ready, to do just that. Slowed by wrist and shoulder issues last season, Jennings appeared in 17 games with the Rays and hit .190, mostly in reserve duty after being called up in September.
But those who have played with Jennings in the minor leagues know why he's rated the 22nd-best prospect by Baseball America.
"He's got a lot of tools; I think the sky is the limit for him," first baseman Dan Johnson said. "He's one of those guys who has the ability to do just about everything. I don't think there's anything that kid can't do."
Jennings, recruited by the University of Alabama to be a receiver, has dynamic speed. But Rays manager Joe Maddon also loves his instincts, both in baserunning and routes in chasing fly balls. The way Jennings works at-bats, Triple-A manager Charlie Montoyo said, makes him a good leadoff hitter.
"I just remember in Triple A, he made some in-bat adjustments I thought were impressive," starter Wade Davis said. "You don't see a lot of people in general doing that, even at the big-league level. … He's such a well-rounded athlete, and I think, mentally, he's a step above what a lot of people realize."
Infielder Elliot Johnson said Jennings "never panics."
"He's in control of himself, no matter what," he said. "He's never overwhelmed. … And he makes everyone else around him better."
Jennings wishes he could have hit better at Triple A last season, when he averaged .278 with a career-high 67 strikeouts.
"He was never 100 percent," Montoyo said. "You've got to give him credit just for playing. If he's healthy, he'll be the guy we thought he was going to be."
Maddon said he likes Jennings' approach and attitude in camp, as he realizes he has to earn whatever he gets, and is willing to work for it.
"This guy's going to be fine; he's going to hit enough," Maddon said. "He's going to hit for some power. His defense is going to be spectacular. … But he is a good athlete with a good head for this game. That tells me he's going to get a lot better. It's really fascinating, actually. Couple more years he's going to be a solid performer in this league."
And when Jennings finally gets his shot, the Rays don't want him to be the next Crawford.
"No," Maddon said. "He'll be the first Desmond Jennings."