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Desmond Jennings Has Rollercoaster 2011 for Rays

In 2011, the buzz about Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings seems to have shifted from polarizing, to tantalizing, to polarizing once again. Apparently, I’ve somewhat positioned myself in the center of that argument on Twitter as a mention seems to come my way regarding Jennings after every multi-hit game or hitless performance. Whether gloating, or backing up my assessment of the young outfielder, Jennings the player provides for a great opportunity to discuss the black-and-white nature of scouting and just how finicky prospect followers can be.

Triple-A video of Jennings after the jump.

Back in June, I posted a piece entitled “Dialing Desmond Jennings” discussing reasons why the Rays had not promoted Jennings as “The Legend of Sam Fuld” had seemingly died in just as epic a way as it began. In that piece, I considered Jennings more Austin Jackson (with better on-base skills) than Andrew McCutchen as I struggled to see the truly explosive tools he was rumored to have. In all fairness, Jackson is certainly not a bad baseball player as his two full seasons at the big league level have yielded an average of 3.45 WAR during his age 23-24 seasons, placing him 50th amongst all offensive players.

At the same time, I began updating my top-25 players scouted list again and ranked Jennings 20th overall sandwiched between Astros prospect Jonathan Singleton and Padres prospect Robert Erlin who were both dealt at the trade deadline. In July and August, I ranked Jennings 20th and 18th overall respectively which is complementary considering I’ve personally scouted an estimated 100 players who have ranked in a major top-100 at one point.

With a 2.4 WAR debut in less than half a season’s worth of plate appearances, it seems as if I underestimated Jennings’ upside potential, but I’m certainly not ready to anoint him the future of the Rays franchise just yet. The 2011 season was certainly an excellent debut, but his power totals and overall offensive performance collapsed late. Whether pitchers made adjustments, or his struggles were simply an extreme case of BABIP regression to offset his extreme early success, I’m not sure. However, it would be hypocritical of me not to strongly consider the role of BABIP in the grand scheme of things as my counter to the “Desmond Jennings for President” crowd was his BABIP in the early going bordering on insanity.

Maybe nicknaming Desmond Jennings “Sugar Rush” would be fitting as his domination caused quite a high in scouting circles followed by the kind of crash that leaves one comatose in a dark corner of the room having nightmares of diving catches of line drives and outfielders scaling walls to bring home runs back into the field of play.

For prospect fans, my simply wanting to temper the enthusiasm surrounding Jennings was considered sacrilegious by many who were familiar with his lofty prospect rankings and expected immediate greatness. In actuality, my motivation was to simply explain the black and white scenario of Jennings being boom or bust was not the correct way to analyze him as a prospect and the overall line does point to that. It just so happens that Jennings is currently a few shades of gray closer to star level than I originally anticipated.

In scouting, I’ve always used a general rule of 22-24-26 which generally holds true. In essence, it means the earlier a player reaches the big leagues for good, the higher the upside potential is. In Jennings case, his being 24 is normally an indicator of a future as a solid regular which is certainly nothing be ashamed of. To compare, Carl Crawford logged nearly 3,000 plate appearances by the end of his age-24 season including three seasons of 4.8 WAR or above production, ranking him as one of the best players in baseball prior to the 2011 season.

Desmond Jennings should be a fine player for the Rays going forward with performances which far outweigh his paltry pre-arbitration salaries – exactly what the organization needs to be successful. However, I’m still not sold on his being a star at the big league level, or Jennings maintaining the type of power he initially displayed. If that categorizes me as the Anti-Jennings, then I can live with that.

With two home runs in game three of their best of five series versus the Rangers which the Rays eventually lost, I anticipate an off-season full of lofty expectations and glowing write ups for Jennings. However, to fairly characterize him as a player, one must weigh both the highs and lows of Jennings rookie season without focusing strictly on one of the other. Personally, I’d rather fall a bit short on my projection of him than lump him with the game’s best at this point. If Jennings posts a six win season in 2012, I’ll be happy to eat some more crow. When it comes to Desmond Jennings, I’m just a glutton for punishment.