PORT CHARLOTTE — Desmond Jennings came to Rays spring training last year as the new Carl Crawford, replacing the four-time All-Star in leftfield. Now this year he is shifting to centerfield and taking over for the multitalented B.J. Upton.
So which is the greater challenge?
"I feel like it's tougher to be me," Jennings said.
Actually, more than being the next Crawford or the new Upton, the Rays need Jennings to be himself.
For all the reasons that Jennings' first full season in the majors was a disappointment — to himself and the team — the most glaring was he didn't look like the same guy who rose through the minors and made it to the majors in mid 2011 featuring a combination of speed, power and plate discipline.
"I got away from being me," Jennings said of last season.
The .246 average, the .314 on-base percentage, the 120-46 ratio of strikeouts to walks were all measures of how out of line he was.
"The big thing with Desmond is controlling the strike zone," hitting coach Derek Shelton said.
"That's something he had done in '11 when he was in midseason form, and I think last year he lost it a little bit. That's probably the biggest thing now — he's swinging at the pitches he should and not swinging at the pitches he shouldn't. Last year, he kind of got away from his own approach."
In other words, Jennings this spring has looked more like he used to, which is to say much different than last season.
His performance, approach, confidence, even physical conditioning, after spending the winter in Tampa working with a personal trainer and improving his diet, have all been markedly improved.
"He's doing everything well," manager Joe Maddon said. "His whole game looks good."
Jennings, 26, is quiet to begin with, but even in whispers it's clear how disappointed he was with last season. Some would suggest that the Rays expected too much, handing him the starting job and a spot at the top of the order, but Jennings said the expectations were valid and he is the one to blame.
"It was a letdown," he said. "I let myself down with what happened."
Realization of what went wrong is one reason Jennings is certain he will get it right this year.
"I never had a problem with the strike zone," he said. "I expanded my strike zone a lot last year, and I want to zone back in. I've been working on it this spring, and I feel like it's working."
"My big thing this year is to score," Jennings said. "However I have to get to that plate, that's what I'm trying to do — walk, hit, bunt, hit by pitch. Whatever it takes, I'm just trying to get on base."
The offense is the larger concern. Jennings played centerfield mostly through the minor leagues and said the shift back — after being a finalist for the Gold Glove in leftfield — seems natural.
"I feel like center, that's where I play," he said. "That's where I feel most comfortable. I feel like I'm back home in center."
And though he doesn't have anywhere near the arm that Upton did — few do — he thinks he can step in pretty well, adjusting easily to the different angles and reads.
"As far as going to get balls and stuff like that, I think I can handle my own," he said.
Just as Crawford did last year, Upton, who signed with Atlanta this offseason, endorses Jennings as his successor.
"He'll be fine," Upton said at Braves camp. "He's an athlete, and he takes pride in what he does. The last couple years he got to watch Carl in left and me in center. … I'm sure he picked up some things he'll apply."
Jennings said he really doesn't mind the constant comparisons.
"These are good people to look up to," he said. "It's good for people to think I can even compare to these guys."
So after replacing Crawford in leftfield and now Upton in center, what possibly could be in store next year?
"I don't know," Jennings said, laughing. "Hopefully they don't try to put me at third base."
Staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report. Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]