Season Preview 2013: Desmond Jennings, Natural Center Fielder

Jared Wickerham

Allow me to be candid.

Yesterday morning, Erik had this to say about Desmond Jennings shifting to center field this off-season: "The team isn't worried, the coaches aren't worried, no other articles need be written."

Really?

It's true that Jennings's shift from left field to center has been somewhat of a given; however, there is speculation as to how the strength of his arm would play from the deepest points in the outfield, and there hadn't been much publicly stated whether DJ would take the reins in 2013.

That is, until this week.

Bill Chastain interviewed Jennings for a post on raysbaseball.com that ran with the title:

Jennings expects smooth transition to center: After playing left last year, 26-year-old moving back to natural position.

You can stop there. You don't even need to read the article, this is the Rays's website.

If there was any question in your mind as to whether Desmond Jennings, Sam Fuld, or Wil Myers would be roaming the sunburst logo on the AstroTurf, you can put those concerns to bed -- and as Erik said, stop writing.

Sorry, I'm not sorry.

Jennings or Myers?

There's a couple interesting aspects to the article that I'd like to shine a light on in our season preview to Desmond Jennings. There still has not been a formal statement on his role (in the same way the Rays have not formally announced Myers will start in Triple-A, supposedly anything could happen), so we are working with context clues -- and the first is Chastain's article, which quotes a confident Jennings:

"I feel like center field is my natural position," Jennings said. "It's what I played throughout the Minor Leagues. It will be a little bit different from last year, but that's what I like. I feel like I get better reads out in center."

His statements hearken to ones made by and about Wil Myers, who also prefers the center outfield position, where the reads are easier than the corner, and where Myers -- the former catcher with plus arm strength -- could gun down runners like he's Sam Fuld.*

*Yes, I said it.

The difference is that Myers still has the rest of his defense in development, while Jennings has already demonstrated Gold Glove quality in a major league outfield. The stars have not aligned for Myers to play center or right field, so the opportunity for Myers has been a story I have found fascinating.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, when I think of an ideal player in center field, I remember a power hitting Johnny Damon. Now that I'm older, have a distaste for the Red Sox, and know that Damon was costing his team at least 10 Defensive Runs Saved a season, I know he probably should have played in left. But the idea of a power-hitting center fielder is too tantalizing for me to give up on until the dream has been thoroughly stomped on.

Context clue number two that Jennings will be playing in center, and not Myers?

Oof. Well that's not the end of the world. It's true that Desmond will also be playing in center today as Spring Training kicks off, but it's only one game.

I wouldn't be worried unless the coaching staff were affirming Jennings as the center fielder.

"Desmond is a natural center fielder, and I think he feels more comfortable playing center field," Martinez said. "I think he's been biting at the bit to play center field."

Crap.

Chastain followed up Jennings comments by interviewing the Rays outfield/bench coach Dave Martinez, who is a key decision maker in the defensive alignment for Jennings and Myers, and who apparently doesn't believe Jennings will have a problem, arm strength issues aside:

"I've seen a lot of guys that play center field that didn't have the arm strength B.J. had and got away with it," Martinez said. "I was just talking to Desmond about how well he charges the ball. I've told him, 'When you come get the ball, you don't have to worry about your arm. We don't worry about throwing runners out. We worry about getting guys before they even attempt the next base. If you get to the ball as quick as you did in left field, you won't have a problem.'"

So the standard is getting away with it? The more times I read through the quotes, the less Martinez sounds confident in Jennings.

Have the Rays guaranteed Jennings the position? Will the coaching staff continue Myers's development at center? Is my pipe dream still alive? The answers are basically, maybe, and no.

The defining aspect to playing center field is athleticism, which requires a different build than a corner outfielder.

Myers already considers himself a power hitter, and in any publication I have read or seen quoted Myers profiles to a corner outfield slot. Could Myers eventually start in center field? Sure, but he would not realistically stay there unless his bat failed to develop and he needed to slim down. Even Mike Trout is shifting out of center field in 2013.

In lieu of Jennings being handed the role in center, hopefully Myers can see past his personal preferences for center field and return to working on his development as a right field power hitter, which the Royals first pursued in 2011.

Jennings the Natural

It's important to consider that Jennings already profiles as a center fielder that has been playing in left, similar to Carl Crawford in his early days with the Rays. When Jennings first climbed the ladder out of the minors, comparisons to Carl Crawford seemed inevitable -- and Joe Maddon was quick to establish that Jennings was "the first Desmond Jennings" and not "the second Carl Crawford" -- but now that Jennings has posted his own 10 DRS, 20 UZR/150 season, the comparison is fair.

Better yet, Jennings earned the comparison recovering from a sprained knee, which he suffered in May.

Desmond went on to place in the top 5 for Fangraphs's fielding runs above replacement (Fld) metric for left fielders, who all scored 11.0 or higher. The next best player was David Murphy with a 7.7 Fld, and only eight players had positive metrics in the left corner. Considering center field is an "easier" position, in terms of reading the ball and tracking it down, in a new year with a healthy leg to stand on, an increased defensive performance by Jennings wouldn't surprise me one bit.

Chastain's article did speculate that Jennings may have trouble placing the ball past the pitcher's mound on throws to home, but that seems to be the only challenge facing Jennings. Still, the team isn't worried, the coaches aren't worried... maybe no other articles need be written.**

**Part 2 of our Season Preview on Desmond Jennings will run on Monday.

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