A few weeks ago, R.J. wrote about Desmond Jennings and his reputation taking a hit because of age. Jennings, 24, will start the season in Triple-A, and could spend the bulk of 2011 as a member of the Durham Bulls. As Anderson pointed out, Jennings is not the first outfield prospect to get a little extra seasoning in the minor leagues before being unleashed for the world to see.
In addition to the age and injury concerns, Jennings carries the burden of being considered the next Carl Crawford. To organization’s credit, they have tried to temper expectations. When asked at the winter meetings if Jennings would in fact be the next Carl Crawford, manager Joe Maddon replied “No, he’ll be the first Desmond Jennings.”
Despite the efforts of Maddon and the front office, media types (self included) and fans alike will undoubtedly continue to saddle the outfielder with the larger-than-life comparison. But what if Jennings fails to become the next Crawford, meaning perennial all-star and face of the franchise? Would that make the top positional prospect in the Rays’ system a bust?
To some, the answer is yes. But hopefully, to the large majority the value Jennings brings will not be tied to awards and all-star games. Truth be told, Jennings does not have to match Crawford’s accomplishments to be the player we all imagine he could be. In fact, if Jennings becomes the next Shannon Stewart we should all be thankful.
It is true, Shannon Stewart was never selected to an all-star game. He topped 13 home runs just once in his career. Like Jennings projects to, he didn’t become a regular major league player until his mid-20s. That said, during his peak Stewart was among the games better leadoff hitters even if he never got the recognition .
Similar to Jennings’ situation right now, Stewart had to wait behind an aging player for a season before getting his chance. Once the Toronto Blue Jays got rid of Otis “My Man” Nixon, Stewart became an everyday player for the team. Over the next six seasons, he would hit .305/.370/.452 while averaging 650 plate appearances per year. He averaged just 13 home runs a season, but also averaged nearly 40 doubles and more than 25 steals. In a rare public acknowledgement of his talent, the outfielder had a ridiculous top-5 MVP finish in 2003. Meanwhile, the MVP love was a bit much considering the sixth place finisher, Manny Ramirez, had an OPS that was nearly .200 more than Stewart’s.
While Stewart was an above-average offensive player, his defense was average to below-average throughout his peak. Despite consistent weighted on-base averages (wOBA) above .350, Stewart was a 3-3.5 win player during his prime because of defense. Nonetheless, those WAR totals are indicative of an above-average major league starter and he did sneak a 5 win season in the middle.
Though he would play for other teams in his early 30’s, Stewart spent parts of 10 seasons with the Blue Jays. In a tick over 4,000 plate appearances with Toronto, he hit .298/.365/.440. Going back to the Crawford comparison, CC hit .296/.337/.444 in nine seasons for the Rays. Hitting wise both displayed similar contact and power numbers, but Stewart has the OBP edge thanks to his willingness to walk.
One thing Crawford and Jennings share that separates them from Stewart is defensive prowess. Jennings also has the chance to be a much more profound base stealer given his plus speed and Tampa Bay’s willingness to run. Meanwhile, Stewart did swipe 51 bags in 1998.
In conclusion, the Crawford comparisons for Jennings are unfair because Crawford’s legacy to the Bay Area is ultimately tied to him being the first recognizable franchise player in the team’s history. On the other hand, Shannon Stewart spent a decade in Toronto producing similar –if not better- offensive numbers without much accolades or awards. I don’t like comparing players just for the sake of having a comparison, but if Jennings can become the “next Shannon Stewart” at the plate with above-average defense and more steals, he’ll go a long way in fulfilling the Crawford comp and becoming the first Desmond Jennings.