PORT CHARLOTTE — In what has almost become a rite of Rays spring, team officials rave about how dynamic an impact a healthy Desmond Jennings can have on their lineup, and Jennings says the coming season is, finally, going to be the one where he takes advantage of his extreme talent to emerge as that elite player.
That scene played out again Wednesday. Jennings talked about how much the previously troublesome left knee that limited him to 28 games last year, and forced him to miss the last month of 2014, was better and how jazzed he was about what lies ahead.
"I feel good," Jennings said. "I'm excited to actually participate in baseball again. I just look forward to having some fun and playing."
Plus, he insisted that fans, teammates, coaches and Rays officials — who paid him $3.1 million last season and are on the hook for $3.3 million for this one — weren't the only ones disappointed and that he let himself and others down.
"It's always frustrating," Jennings said. "You want to play. For it to end without me playing the year before, and for it to end like it did last year, it's very frustrating. It's hard to stay positive when you go through stuff like that. I probably didn't last year. I was frustrated with a lot of things. I was frustrated with myself, I was frustrated with everything, just being hurt. I ain't thinking about it now. I'm just ready to get back out on the field and start playing baseball again."
From a bottom-line, or at least boxscore-line, standpoint, what Jennings does on the field is what matters most.
But in his case, just getting back on the field, and staying there, has currency because the repeated injuries — limiting him to no more than 139 games in any of his four full seasons — have raised whispers, if not questions, about his desire.
That Jennings doesn't talk much with the media, or say much when he does, is certainly his prerogative. He doesn't share much with teammates, either, for that matter. But that lack of communication can fuel the perception that he doesn't care enough that he is not playing.
Even his friends see that. With the departure of Sean Rodriguez after 2014, assistant hitting coach Jamie Nelson may be the closest person in uniform to Jennings, having stayed tight since managing his 2006 rookie ball season, and Nelson insists he wants to play.
"Everybody handles frustration differently," Nelson said. "What somebody might perceive as non-caring might be 100 percent wrong. In our conversations, his sincerity has been, 'I want to be on that field.'
"Maybe his body language shows something different. But he is an introverted guy. Sometimes if somebody is not extroverted you go on body language. And we all have our differences of opinion on what it might be. Sometimes it might be a little deceiving.
"But he wants to be out there. He wants to not only play, he wants to help the team win. He wants to play well. He wants to make money."
Third baseman Evan Longoria knows what it's like to miss extended time with an injury. He appreciates how much talent Jennings has. And he understands the situation.
"Injury is the worst thing for a career — it's definitely eye-opening when you've never been there," Longoria said. "My hope for him is that it was eye-opening enough to where he comes back hungry. That he realizes that there is not infinite opportunity. The door is not going to be open for you in this game for very long if you don't perform.
"And so I hope he's hungry. I hope he's gotten his body ready and gotten past all of the issues that he had last year. He can definitely help us. A healthy Desmond Jennings when he's been on the field, he makes an impact. We could use that."
Jennings, 29, says he has done everything he can to get back to his spot in leftfield and the middle part of the batting order. He first rested the knee, on which he had June arthroscopic surgery, then resumed workouts with an emphasis on running to strengthen his legs and lose some weight to lighten the load. (Typical, he wouldn't say what he weighs now.) He also plans to work out more during the season for maintenance.
What he can't do anything about is playing half his games on the unforgiving artificial turf at the Trop, making a rare joke that "if they could put a patch (of grass) out there it'd be nice."
Jennings is aware of the criticism and the skepticism but not driven by it, focusing more on playing for himself, his family and the Rays.
He knows what he has to do.
"I feel like I just have to stay on the field," he said. "The main thing is actually playing the game."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.