The Arrival of Jennings, Is it Too Little Too Late?
Generally I haven’t been a big fan of ESPN’s Sweet Spot Blog over the past few months. The writing of David Schoenfield just doesn’t compare of the wit and insights we used to see in that space when Rob Neyer was at the helm. But, I will give Schoenfield his credit as he does occasionally post something that catches my attention.
Schoenfield’s discussion centers on the expectations that were placed on Jennings entering the 2011 season, the organization’s alternatives that were played instead for months, and the fact that the production we’ve seen thus far from the young outfielder is unlike what he’s done throughout his minor league career. He goes on to conclude that Jennings may develop into an All Star caliber player, but he isn’t there yet. But despite his recent hot play, if the Rays fail to make playoffs (which at this point in time appears likely) it isn’t simply because they waited too long to insert Jennings into the lineup.
Logic compels me to agree with Schoenfield’s larger point – that the team’s failure to reach the post season is not the fault of Jennings. Offensive production has been lacking from a number of positions. Kelly Shoppach (.174/.269/.300, 218 plate appearances) and John Jaso (224/.307/.358, 226 plate appearances) have shared the bulk of the catching duties and both have been disappointments. Shortstop Reid Brignac (.194/.231/.218, 219 plate appearances) has been a big hole in the lineup after a strong 2010 campaign. Elliot Johnson (.195/.256/.338, 174 plate appearances) hasn’t been much better. Both positions figure to play a central role in the team’s offseason plans.
B.J. Upton (.224/.308/.392, 510 plate appearances) has largely struggled at the plate, yet he still drew a great deal of attention at and after this year’s trading deadline. The team opted to hold onto him, at least for now, because they still feel he’s valuable to them, particularly on defense. Upton has never lived up to his offensive expectations but signs of regression can’t be good for his future outlook. With one final year of team control remaining, the offseason might be the right time to deal him rather than simply waiting for the extra draft picks when he leaves via free agency.
Evan Longoria (.236/.332/.476, 443 plate appearances) has also not hit like himself this season and one has to wonder how much of this has to do with the injury that kept him sidelined at the onset of the season. His power has returned, as he’s hit a team leading 24 home runs thus far, but he has otherwise struggled at the plate and hasn’t been been the usual defensive standout.
It hasn’t all been negative, however, for the Rays this year. Ben Zobrist (.280/.366/.484, 565 plate appearances) continues to be the second most valuable player on the team from an offensive standpoint (behind only Longoria) thanks to his consistency and with some help from his defensive versatility. Matt Joyce (.284/.347/.497, 430 plate appearances) has developed into a reliable outfielder despite a recent dip in his season batting average over the past few weeks. Casey Kotchman (.323/.390/.451, 446 plate appearances) has enjoyed a strong season after winning the first base job (one that has lacked consistent production for years) in Spring Training.
Jennings has been impressive since the Rays recalled him on July 23rd and inserted him atop the lineup. In 153 plate appearances across 34 games since he is batting .354/.440/.646 with 8 HR and 14 stolen bases. The Rays have gone 21-13 over that stretch but still currently sit 9 games in back of the AL East leading Red Sox and 7.5 games behind the wild card leading Yankees. Could an earlier arrival of Jennings have made a difference on the Rays’ season? Yes, it is possible. But ultimately it is the collective disappointments of the offense as a whole that have kept this team out of contention in 2011.