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Monday, August 29, 2011
Should Jennings have been up earlier?

By David Schoenfield

After hitting .318 with 52 extra-base hits and 52 stolen bases in the minors in 2009, Desmond Jennings became one of the top prospects in baseball. But his trek from hotshot to starting major league outfielder was slower than expected. The Tampa Bay Rays sent him to Triple-A in 2010 -- which made sense, considering he had played 32 games there in 2009. When Jennings failed to match his 2009 numbers, hitting .278 with three home runs, he didn't make his major league debut until a September call-up.

Still, many expected him to be the starting left fielder for the Rays this season. Instead, the team signed Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, and when Ramirez retired a week into the season after failing a drug test, minor league veteran Sam Fuld became the left fielder. Jennings languished in Triple-A and while his numbers improved over 2010 -- he hit .275/.364/.456 -- they weren't even as impressive as less-heralded teammates like Brandon Guyer or Justin Ruggiano. Scouts said Jennings looked a little bored, maybe he needs the challenge of the major leagues.

Sure enough, the Rays called up him July 23 and he's been on fire ever since going 2-for-3 with a double, triple and two walks in his first game up. He's hitting .354/.440/.646 with eight home runs, 15 steals and 22 runs in 34 games. The Rays are 21-13 since he recall and the question, as Eric Karabell and Mark Simon raised on the Baseball Today podcast: Did Tampa wait too long to call him up? The Rays are 6.5 games behind the Yankees? What if they finish a couple games behind? The Tampa Bay front office will face a lot of criticism if that happens.

That said, I'm not sure it was a bad decision. By delaying Jennings' service time, they'll get an extra year from Jennings before he reaches arbitration (and, later, free agency). Second, Fuld did OK in left field, excelling on defensive in particular, and hitting well in April; his playing time though May and June was probably deserved. Third, if Jennings had hit at Durham like he has in Tampa, he would have been recalled much sooner.

I think it's important to realize that Jennings isn't this good. You don't suddenly go from hitting 15 home runs over two seasons in Triple-A to hitting eight in just 130 at-bats in the majors without a little luck. Even Jennings' biggest supporters couldn't have expected this outburst. In the end, if Tampa falls a couple games short of the playoffs, you can blame the poor play of Reid Brignac or the production from the catchers more than the decision to leave Jennings in the minors.