With Desmond Jennings, other youngsters, Tampa Bay Rays have bright prospects for 2012

B.J. Upton congratulates Desmond Jennings for Thursday’s homer, one of three he has hit since being called up.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

B.J. Upton congratulates Desmond Jennings for Thursday’s homer, one of three he has hit since being called up.

ST. PETERSBURG — The season swirls around the drain, and still, he will not give up on it.

There are vultures circling the bat rack, and still, he will not surrender.

There is a priest standing by, and a mortician and an undertaker, and still, he believes.

That's the thing about Joe Maddon. His crystal ball has rainbows and parades inside it, and he is not going to give up on his Rays season until the doctors call out the time of death. Maybe not even then.

On a day such as Thursday, perhaps you can understand why.

This was one of the good days. It took 12 innings and three comebacks and 20 players, but the Rays finally won a 7-6 decision to further stave off fourth place. For a team with a faint pulse, in a season that has been lost, it was a fun way to spend an afternoon.

Also, there was this to consider: A game such as this whispers nice things about the future.

In other words, even if this season turns out to be less than many people expected, Thursday's game was an example of why next year doesn't necessarily have to hold the same disappointment.

Because of Desmond Jennings.

Because of Robinson Chirinos (maybe).

Because of Brandon Gomes (maybe).

We have reached August, and the Rays are still 10 games out of first place in the AL East and 10 out of the wild card, and it is fair to say a good many fans have given up on this year. Some of them may have given up on next year, too, just to be first in line.

By now, we know how 2012 will look. The Rays will still have a small payroll next year, and they will still play in the AL East, and they will still play at Tropicana Field, where they have been miserable for much of the year. They will still have to bargain shop for players, and they will still have to piece together their bullpen, and they will still be the average age of a college fraternity. They probably won't have enough power then, either. And, alas, the Red Sox and Yankees aren't going anywhere.

So, as reluctant as some people may be to talk about next year, how do the Rays get better for 2012?

By looking to the kids who won Thursday's game, that's how.

Start with Jennings, 24, who is playing as if he is terrified of ever seeing a Triple-A clubhouse again. He hit his third homer in two weeks of being a Ray to tie the score in the 10th. He also doubled in the 11th.

In other words, Jennings has been everything he was expected to be. He has shown discipline at the plate and instincts on the bases and power the scouting reports did not suggest. Instead of a number, the kid should wear "Next Big Thing" on the back of his jersey.

Then there was Chirinos, 27, who tied the score with a single in the 11th, then won it with another in the 12th.

Could Chirinos finally be the catcher the Rays have been seeking? It's too early to tell. He hasn't thrown out enough runners, and no one knows if his bat will be quick enough over the long haul. But so far, he has earned a further look.

Then there was Gomes, 27, who was the Rays' last chance as a pitcher on Thursday. Maddon couldn't say enough about how impressed he was with Gomes.

For the Rays, this is the advantage of being so darned young. You don't have to bench the regulars to play the kids. Around here, they're the same guys who provide the team's only chance, small as it may be, at making you pay attention.

In other words, this season is going to be hard to salvage. Next year? As of now, the Rays are right in the middle of the 2012 race. Yippee.

Maddon, of course, won't hear of such talk. He was a coach with the Angels back in '95, when they held an 11-game lead in their division on Aug. 9. That was before their season fell down an elevator shaft, and the next thing you know, they were losing a playoff game to Seattle.

"I know it doesn't look rosy for us," Maddon said. "But I've seen it happen. We are still capable of getting on a hot streak."

In some ways, this has been a difficult season to watch. The Rays struggle mightily at home, and the bats disappear far too often. The stars — Evan Longoria and David Price — have struggled. Even Maddon admits he expected more out of this season. Before Thursday's game, the manager suggested his team should be 10 games above .500 instead of five.

The thing is, 10 games over .500 would still have the Rays in third place. And third place, even though that's where most people picked the Rays to finish, seems to make a lot of locals grumpy.

Could this team have done more? Absolutely. But worse than underachievement is the impression a team is doomed to repeat it.

This team still has some flaws. It needs to solve the six-pitcher rotation with a trade. It needs to make a decision on B.J. Upton. It needs to fix Longoria and Price. It needs to make its bullpen better. It needs to find a shortstop. It needs a catcher. It needs more pop in the lineup.

Most of all, it needs to be in a pennant race.

Maddon will tell you it has a chance. From time to time, when Jennings is at the plate, I think I agree with him.

With Desmond Jennings, other youngsters, Tampa Bay Rays have bright prospects for 2012 08/04/11 [Last modified: Friday, August 5, 2011 7:32am]

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