PORT CHARLOTTE — There are few players in Rays camp generating as much hype as outfielder Desmond Jennings.
The Rays' top prospect is a gifted athlete, boasting a unique blend of speed, power and baseball savvy. That's why Jennings, 23, could be the heir apparent in leftfield if Carl Crawford, the three-time All-Star and face of the franchise, isn't re-signed after this season.
But, as it turns out, Jennings came close to never playing professional baseball at all.
Jennings, who was the Mr. Football runnerup in Alabama in 2004, didn't consider baseball as a career even after getting drafted in the 18th round by the Indians in 2005. Instead, the three-sport star signed to play receiver for the Crimson Tide. When he didn't qualify academically, Jennings went to Itawamba Community College in Mississippi, where he led the nation in receptions. The plan was to re-enroll at Alabama in time for spring football the following year.
But when Itawamba baseball coach Rick Collier, who was allowed just four out-of-state recruits, found out one of them wasn't going to enroll due to a broken ankle, he asked Jennings to come out. Jennings turned enough heads in an injury-shortened season to get drafted in the 10th round by the Rays, and decided his future belonged in baseball.
"He could have gone to the SEC to play football and may be playing on Sundays (in the NFL)," Collier said. "It's funny how things work out."
Jennings' love for football aside, he believes he's in a better place, taking in his first big-league camp with a locker next to Crawford. Jennings will likely start the season in Triple A, but he could join the Rays this year.
"The kid almost reminds me of (Evan) Longoria," said Charlie Montoyo, Jennings' manager at Triple-A Durham. "They were supposed to go to (the minors) and stay there, but they kept pushing your hand, they keep moving up. This guy is just like one of those players, Longoria, (Rocco) Baldelli, that I get excited about."
While most Rays fans — and even manager Joe Maddon — haven't seen Jennings much in game situations, those who have say he is the complete package. Baseball America ranked him the sixth-best overall prospect in baseball heading into this season.
"He doesn't have any weaknesses out there," said right-hander Jeremy Hellickson, another prized Rays prospect. "He runs down everything, doesn't strike out, he hits for power. I haven't seen anybody better than him. If he stays healthy, the sky is the limit."
Staying healthy hasn't always been easy. Jennings has played in just 311 games in four minor-league seasons, including 28 in 2008 due to season-ending shoulder surgery. But when Jennings got back, he flourished in his first full professional season. Last season at Double-A Montgomery and Durham, he hit .318 with 11 homers and was the only minor-league player with at least 50 extra-base hits and 50 steals (52 in 59 attempts). On Sept. 3, he had a 7-for-7 night at the plate against Charlotte.
Montoyo said Jennings would make a good leadoff hitter in the big leagues because of his patience and plate discipline — walking as many times (67) as he struck out. "There's no sense of urgency with him at the plate. He waits for his pitch," he said.
On defense, Jennings "glides, almost like (B.J.) Upton. He's not as fast as Upton, but he gets to the ball pretty easy," Montoyo said. "This guy is always there."
Crawford said, "From what I've seen so far, he's got the athletic ability that everybody has been talking about."
Jennings says he hears people comparing him to Crawford and Upton all the time, and he is honored. But he knows his place. Coaches and teammates laud his maturity and understanding of the game.
"I can't be compared to those guys. They're five years into the league," Jennings said of Crawford and Upton. "I'm just going to sit back, play my role, follow the leader, help pick up on what they do.
"And hope I can be as good."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.