A traditional leadoff hitter has the ability to get on base and possesses the speed and acumen to steal bases. In Desmond Jennings the Rays have that prototypical leadoff hitter. He was drafted by the Rays in the 10th round of the 2006 draft and first appeared on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospect list prior to 2008 season at #59. His stock fell to #80 prior to 2009, jumped up to #6 prior to 2010, and receded to #22 prior to 2011. He made his major league debut for the Rays on September 1, 2010 and was included on the Rays 2010 ALDS roster.
When Carl Crawford signed with the Red Sox following the 2010 season it was assumed that Jennings would take over in left field. This seemed to be the plan until the Rays signed Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon prior to spring training. Damon was signed to be the everyday left fielder while Ramirez was slated to be the everyday DH. Of course this punched the ticket for Desmond Jennings to head back to Durham.
Jennings had a very good year in Durham posting a slash line of .275/.374/.456 covering 397 plate appearances, added 12 home runs, and stole 17 bases while only being caught 1 time. On July 23rd he was called up by the Rays and took his position in left field and atop the Rays lineup.
With the Rays in 2011 he had a slash line o f .259/.356/.449 covering 287 plate appearances, hit 10 HR, and stole 20 bases. When he joined the Rays their post-season hopes were fading quickly, the trade deadline was looming, and their was uncertainty as to who would remain with the team through the final two months of the season. Night after night throughout the remainder of July and August he dazzled fans with a combination of power, speed, and defensive ability that reminded many of another former Rays left fielder who had a similar dynamic skill set.
In September, whether from fatigue (previous high of plate appearances was 577), normal regression, or the league catching up to him, the game proved more difficult. He finished the month hitting only .160 which included a 0-29 stretch over the final 6 games of the season. The dramatics of Game 162 gave Jennings a chance to end the season on a more positive note and he took advantage of that chance by hitting .333 (5 for 15) which included 2 home runs and 3 walks and only 1 strikeout.
In 2011 Joe Maddon used a total of 8 different leadoff hitters prior to Jennings arrival. After his addition to the team Maddon placed Jennings in the leadoff spot in 61 of the Rays final 63 games (the other 2 starts given to Matt Joyce while Jennings rested). The addition of a productive Jennings to the top of the batting order helped the Rays increase their runs per game from 4.15 R/G before his arrival to 4.68 R/G after.
In 2012 Joe Maddon will have something he has lacked over his time in Tampa Bay and that is the prototypical leadoff hitter. Carl Crawford never wanted to be the leadoff hitter and B.J. Upton's ability to get on base at an adequate clip began to fade away following the 2008 season.
On an appearance on MLB Network Radio with Jim Memolo and Jeff Nelson Jennnigs said he is "the leadoff spot is where I feel most comfortable at, it's where I've been my whole minor league career and when I got called up last year."
Jennings has also added the element of power to his game and may be able to hit 20 HR while stealing upwards of 40 bases. He should provide plenty of opportunities for the middle of the order bats to drive him in and 100 runs scored should be an attainable goal. The big question for Joe Maddon is who bats 2nd behind Desmond Jennings?
Matt Joyce is a left handed bat who may have an opportunity to see more fastballs and hit with a large hole on the right side of the diamond. Batting Joyce second would also put separation between the left handed bats Joyce, Pena, and Scott that could short circuit the oppositions left handed matchups late in a game.
On September 5th Joe Maddon inserted B.J. Upton into the #2 hole and he remained there through the remainder of the season and responded by hitting .356/.462/.644 over 107 plate appearances,14 extra-base hits including 5 home runs, and stole 9 bases while only getting caught 3 times.
Ben Zobrist started 58 games in the #2 hole and was also very productive posting a slash line of .279/.396/.428 in 261 plate appearances, with 25 extra-base hits including 20 doubles, 3 triples, and 2 home runs. Since Ben Zobrist is a switch hitter Joe Maddon would be free to pencil in the Jennings/Zobrist duo without reservation.
A look at the Rays leadoff hitters who started 15 or more games from 2006-2011 are included after the jump.