Sunday, May 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Tampa Bay Rays catalyst Desmond Jennings hopes to create own identity

PORT CHARLOTTE — Desmond Jennings has created something of a quandary for himself.

He'd grown tired, coming up through the Rays minor-league system, of being called the next Carl Crawford. Then Jennings finally got the chance to play regularly in the majors the second half of last season and did so well people were comparing him to, well, Carl Crawford.

The pulsing speed, the game-changing defense, the flashes of power, the overall excitement were all somewhat similar to the Rays' former All-Star leftfielder. Plus, with the added elements of patience at the plate and a willingness to embrace the leadoff role, Jennings quickly has become just as important as Crawford was to the Tampa Bay attack.

"I think he's going to be pretty much the catalyst for the offense, and he showed that he has that ability last year," Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said.

"You hate to compare guys to Carl Crawford because it's so tough to compare someone both (in terms of) baseball talent and being athletically gifted. Carl was probably the most gifted player that I've ever played with, but Desmond is right up there. I think he's just a little bit more raw than Carl was when we had him, but I think that can be there. So it's really fun to watch him play.

"I think we're very blessed to have him fill that void that Carl left because those are huge shoes to fill, and I think he's done a great job doing it."

Jennings, 25, says he is flattered he hears such praise. Humbled. Honored.

But …

"Don't get me wrong, I'll take all the Carl Crawford compliments I can get," Jennings said. "If anybody wants to tell me I'm as athletic or as gifted as Carl, I'll take that all day. But that's just not me. … I respect CC — he was a great player. I love him and what he did for me when he was here. … I just want, I don't know, it's just like I hear it so much, I've heard it so much.

"I just want to be me."

The Rays will take that, at least the Jennings they saw for the first six weeks after his late July promotion, when he posted a .351 average in 35 games, with a .439 on-base and .634 slugging percentage for a 1.073 OPS. Then he cooled — or got tired, or was exposed by opposing pitchers — over the final 28 games, hitting just .150 with a .256 on-base, .230 slugging and .486 OPS.

Jennings said he didn't want to make excuses — "I just stopped hitting" — but felt he lost a bit of his aggressiveness and was taking too many strikes.

Manager Joe Maddon believes the dropoff was more fatigue — physical and mental — and that Jennings will be better for having gone through it.

"To play that many games under that kind of scrutiny, he's not used to that, combined with whatever he was feeling and having to be that catalyst for us, eventually that can wear you out if you've never done that before," Maddon said.

"Coming into this season, he's been stretched mentally. So when he gets to that moment this year he'll be more familiar with it and I think he'll handle it better."

Still, it was a solid start, and a good foundation for Jennings to build off of going into what will be his first full season in the majors.

Jennings finished at .259/.356/.449/.805, led the Rays in runs (44), hits (64) and steals (20) and was second in homers (10) from the time of his callup, and he became the first American League rookie since 2003 with 10 homers and 20 steals.

About those CC comparisons?

Crawford sees it, too.

"I thought Desmond had a good year once he got called up. He did pretty good," Crawford said at Red Sox camp. "That was about what I thought. He had some power and he stole a few bases. He's a good athlete, he just needs time to develop into a good player. I know what that is all about."

Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]

 
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