Rays hope Jennings provides spark in lineup

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. — Of all the potentially significant storylines unfolding this year for the Tampa Bay Rays, there might be none more intriguing than that of Desmond Jennings.

Given what he accomplished in a partial season a season ago, Jennings could help set the tone for increased offensive production for the Rays — and do it from a leadoff spot that has traditionally been a revolving door in the lineup.

For the past two campaigns, manager Joe Maddon has tried numerous other candidates at the top of the order in hopes of generating a steady spark — from catcher John Jaso to designated hitter Johnny Damon to center fielder B.J. Upton and even a brief stint by slugging third baseman Evan Longoria in an effort to snap him out of a slump in 2011.

But with Jennings, poised for his first full season in the majors, the Rays might finally have found a quintessential leadoff hitter: a guy with burning speed, good base-running ability, some impressive pop and — when he’s in the groove — a knack for making something happen at the plate.

His audition after being called up in late July could hardly have started better. Jennings got off to a torrid start, hitting .354 with an on-base percentage of .446 after 12 games. He kept his batting average above .300 through the first week of September before starting to lose steam. He fell into a slump that saw his batting average dip steadily until season’s end to .259.

Playing more combined games than he ever had before no doubt took a toll. But the 6-foot-2, 200-pound left fielder and heir to franchise fixture Carl Crawford still posted some eye-opening numbers: in 247 at bats, he notched nine doubles, four triples and 10 home runs, not to mention 20 stolen bases in 26 attempts and a slugging percentage of .449.

And by the time the playoffs arrived, Jennings seemed to catch his second wind. In the American League Division Series against the Texas Rangers, he had five hits in 15 at bats (.333) including a double and a pair of homers — not bad for a young player on the hot seat.

Maddon hasn’t named Jennings his leadoff man or made any lineup decisions — that’s what spring training games are for. But wherever he winds up, there’s reason to believe the soft-spoken 25-year-old from Birmingham, Ala., will build on the body of work he established last year. And that can only mean good things for the Rays.

“I feel like I have more experience, like I’ve been there, so I know what to expect,” he said. “I can breathe now. I’m not in awe anymore.”

On the other hand, his teammates think Jennings has some pretty awesome potential.

“I think he’s going to be pretty much the catalyst for the offense,” Longoria said. “He showed that he had that ability last year. You hate to compare guys to Carl Crawford, because it’s so tough to compare somebody both in baseball talent and athletically — Carl was probably the most gifted player I’ve ever played with. But Desmond is right up there. I think he’s just a little bit more raw than Carl was, but it’s really fun to watch him play, and 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.”

Upton has had a close-up view of Jennings from center and expects the young outfielder to continue making strides.

“I think he’ll learn the game a little bit more this season, adjusting to the league as it adjusts to him,” Upton said. “But he’s in a good situation. He’s got guys around him who’ve done it and been through it, and we can help him. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Jennings says he doesn’t plan to work on any one particular phase of his game this spring.

“I want to work on everything,” he said. “If I concentrate on one thing, I feel like it’ll take away from something else. I just want to evenly distribute the work I’m getting in.”

In Maddon’s view, the only question with Jennings is endurance and adapting to the rigors of a long season, something he’ll have a chance to do in 2012.

“Toward the end of last season, he started to run out of gas a little bit and started doing some things at the plate that normally he doesn’t or wouldn’t do,” he said. “I’d say the biggest problem or concern with him I have would be keeping an eye on him to make sure you don’t run him into the ground to the point where he gets tired and he has his bad spell.”

In addition, the hard surface of the Trop took a toll on Crawford, with all the diving and sliding he did. Maddon wants to be sure the same doesn’t happen with Jennings.

“Regardless of the age, when you’re playing on the turf like we do, and play a high voltage game like he does, you have to be careful with a guy like that,” he said. “So I would think that the biggest thing is to — in my mind’s eye — the only way he’ll falter at the plate or go back is if he’s gotten tired. So you need to really watch that.

“Otherwise, I think he’s become a better outfielder. He’s got a better arm. He’s always had really good game-awareness on the bases. So that kind of stuff I’m not concerned about. I think the biggest thing is playing a full season healthy and not getting him tired. B.J. doesn’t normally need that rest on the turf. With Carl, you definitely needed to give days off because it would just beat up his legs so much. I don’t know where D.J. is yet. . .

“I want him to go play — and I’ll convey to him, ‘If you need a day off, don’t be afraid to say you need it.’ “

But Jennings is thinking only about playing right now and picking up where he left off in the postseason.

“I just want to go out and play the game,” he said. “I’ve got some goals in my head that I’ve set for myself. But mostly, I just want to do whatever I can for us to be a good team.”

If the partial returns are any indication, there’s plenty he can do indeed.