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Rays give up on multitalented but oft-injured Desmond Jennings

Desmond Jennings, putting down a bunt single at Tropicana Field, has a rare combination of speed and power. But some have wondered about his desire to play through pain and if there was a lack of urgency to return.
Desmond Jennings, putting down a bunt single at Tropicana Field, has a rare combination of speed and power. But some have wondered about his desire to play through pain and if there was a lack of urgency to return.
Published Aug. 27, 2016

HOUSTON — The immediate reaction in hearing Friday evening that the Rays had decided to release oft-injured outfielder Desmond Jennings was to ask: What took them so long?

They gave him another chance after he sat out the final month of the 2014 season with a left knee bruise. Again after he was limited to just 28 games last season due to a pair of DL stints, including knee surgery that he had to have done by a specialist in Colorado. And again earlier this season when his latest exhibition of a lack of hustle prompted external criticism, led by Rays TV analyst Brian Anderson, and internal discussion of a demotion to Triple A. Even, so it appeared, yet again after he landed on the DL twice in the last two months — making it six trips in six years — for a hamstring strain and then another knee bruise.

But Friday afternoon, they decided they had had enough.

"It was time," manager Kevin Cash said. "Best for him, best for us going forward."

In theory, the thinking was that since Jennings wasn't going to be able to play in the next week to drop him from the lineup equation for the rest of this season and to cut the cord and plan for the future, presumably, without him.

"It's unfortunate it didn't work out," Cash said. "We couldn't quite get him on the field as much as we would have liked. We had to make a decision. …

"I think it helps us going forward, it opens doors and decisions now. It probably eliminates one decision that we really have to think through through the month of September. We have guys we want to see get more at-bats and they're going to."

More significant, the Rays can finally let go of the fool's gold hope Jennings would ever maximize the potential of his abundant skills, a ritual they put themselves, and everyone else, through each spring.

"It's frustrating to Desmond and to us," Rays baseball operations president Matt Silverman said. "When healthy, he can impact the game in so many ways. But going back a couple of years, he just hasn't been able to stay on the field for long stretches of time."

There was never any question if Jennings, 29, has the talent and athleticism to play.

His dynamic combination of speed and power is one of the game's rarest commodities, and Silverman wasn't too hyperbolic in saying this past spring, "When he's on the field, he's got the chance to be the best player on the field."

But there has been the question — fair or not, but with cause — that went beyond whether Jennings was healthy enough to play to whether he wanted to play, whether there was too much pain or not enough heart.

That perception was fueled by the lack of any apparent sense of urgency by him about returning. Also by occasional rumbles that he wasn't always respectful of some Rays staff and their time. And by his choice to not be overly open with the media, and thus with the fans, about his condition, especially with injuries that didn't appear debilitating, and that other Rays played through.

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Reached by the Tampa Bay Times on Friday night, Jennings asked, "Why are you calling me?" After a brief explanation, he replied twice, "I don't have anything to say."

Teammates appreciated what he did, but they shared the frustration.

"Desmond was a great player for us for a time, and I thought he was a special player," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's just unfortunate that he just couldn't overcome some injuries. It seems like we'd see some great things from him and then we wouldn't see him for a month or two. …

"You've got to be on the field to be an impact player and live up to that billing and unfortunately he just couldn't stay on the field. I wish him all the best. I hope he gets a job somewhere, catches on and is healthy and can play up to his potential."

Presumably, the Rays would have either tried to trade Jennings early this off-season or non-tender him anyway (rather than pay him around $4 million in his last year before free agency), so the end was coming.

But as if paying Jennings $6.4 million to play in 93 games this season and last wasn't enough, the Rays actually did him a slight favor by taking action now. This way, he will either be claimed or clear waivers by Monday, meaning he could be signed by a contender before Sept. 1 and be playoff eligible, assuming he is healthy enough to get back on the field.

Maybe a change of scenery, or at least of playing surface, in getting off the turf, will help.

But no matter what Jennings may do in the future, even if he signed with the Red Sox or Yankees and tormented them for years, the Rays made the right move in saying goodbye and best wishes.

It just took them too long.

Marc Topkin can be reached at Follow @ TBTimes_Rays.


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