- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
You won't find me leading the charge in defending rookies in any sport too often, but I've been waiting for Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings for a long time. I thought the speedster was ready for the big leagues last season, really. Jennings certainly looks ready now, with three multi-hit games in three attempts and a successful stolen base in each contest. The next Carl Crawford? Hey, I'm game. Perhaps he'll actually be more valuable than the current Crawford for the next two months.
In fact, the most added player in ESPN standard (10-team) leagues -- and this has all happened since Saturday, essentially -- looks like he's going to be more valuable than a lot of players. Jennings, 24, was hitting .275 at Triple-A Durham -- his third consecutive season playing at that level -- with 12 home runs, 19 doubles, 17 stolen bases (in 18 attempts) and 45 walks in 89 games. Honestly, other than financial implications, there was no defending the decision to have him remain in the minor leagues any longer, especially with Sam Fuld, Justin Ruggiano and the sputtering Matt Joyce getting at-bats.
That's not a problem now, and it's easy to see how Jennings can make his mark on fantasy rosters for the rest of the season. The Rays might be undergoing a minor makeover later this week -- it certainly seems like center fielder B.J. Upton is on the trading block -- but regardless of what day it is, it's feasible to recommend Jennings as the team's third-best offensive player, behind only Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist. In fact, if you compare Jennings to Upton right now, the case can be made for the rookie because batting average is important. Upton is hitting .229 and although he really fills the counting stats (15 home runs, 23 steals), Jennings should provide a healthy dose of each as well and avoid killing your batting average.
As of this writing, Jennings is owned in 62.3 percent of leagues. His .545 batting average will obviously go down and he won't steal a base in every single game, but I can see him hitting close to .300 the rest of the way -- his minor league batting average was .294 -- with occasional power and plenty of stolen bases (seven or eight per month?). Jennings can be a top-30 outfielder, and if he's sitting there on your free-agent wire and you're still clinging to -- in order of ownership at over 50 percent -- Bobby Abreu, Raul Ibanez, Michael Brantley, Mitch Moreland, Johnny Damon, Alfonso Soriano, Matt Joyce, Jason Kubel, Alex Rios, Aubrey Huff or Ryan Ludwick, you really should make the switch. In fact, I can make the case for Jennings over the following outfielders owned in 100 percent of leagues: Carlos Lee, Brennan Boesch, Ichiro Suzuki, Corey Hart, Jeff Francoeur, Melky Cabrera, Howard Kendrick, Alex Gordon and, yes, Jayson Werth. In other words, I like Jennings quite a bit.
Here are some other Rays-oriented thoughts:
• Upton is still only 26 years old, by the way, but it's getting pretty difficult to envision him ever hitting .300 again, like he did in 2007. Since then, Upton has hit .273, .241 and .237, and is currently at .229. That, my friends, is what we call a disturbing trend. He's hitting a poor .171 at the beautiful Trop -- be careful of falling light bulbs! -- and .284 on the road. But before we pronounce him solved if he gets traded to some other fair city, note: Upton hit .224 on the road a year ago and .250 at home. His career splits are relatively even. Enjoy Upton's power and speed, but you need to own a Joe Mauer-type for the batting average.
• Closer Kyle Farnsworth ranks 10th for the season among pure relief pitchers on the ESPN Fantasy Player Rater, but rumors abound that the Rays might try to cash in his value this week. If so, I think Joel Peralta is the obvious closing replacement candidate. In most cases, the next closer is the team's setup man, and Peralta boasts nearly half the team's 32 holds (he has 14), and when Farnsworth was unavailable for a game last week against the New York Yankees, Peralta stepped in. Lefty Jake McGee is owned in a lot more leagues because of his potential closing opportunity gone awry from March, but I'd preemptively add Peralta now. As for Farnsworth, I have no idea which team, if any, acquires him and whether he closes or not.
• The team's top starting pitcher over the past month is not James Shields or David Price, but right-hander Jeff Niemann. His July ERA stands at 1.32, his WHIP 1.10 and he's fanned 23 over 27 1/3 innings, including 10 Boston Red Sox on July 17. Niemann also beat the Yankees. He's owned in a mere 21.4 percent of leagues -- though that figure was at 2.2 percent a week ago -- and I'd call him a top-60 starting pitcher right now. I'd still rank Shields, Price and even rookie Jeremy Hellickson ahead of Niemann the rest of the season, but why can't all four guys help fantasy owners?
Eric Karabell says Rays prospect Desmond Jennings is already looking like the real thing in his first days in the majors.