Commentary

Healthy Jennings realizing potential

Updated: June 17, 2009, 2:21 PM ET
By Jason Grey | ESPN.com
Every year after the amateur draft, big signing bonuses are given out to players with the proverbial "tools." "Wheels," "light-tower power" and "rocket arm" are terms that are used to describe some of these supreme athletic abilities.

There's a big difference between tools and actual baseball skills. For all their athletic ability, some players just can't turn the former into the latter, and some just flat-out can't hit. However, let's take a look at one player who is actually turning his immense tools into production on the field and is generating a lot of buzz.

Desmond Jennings, OF, Rays

The 22-year-old's biggest issue before this season was simply staying on the field. In 2007, Jennings missed a month due to knee surgery (yet still hit .315 with 45 steals in the Sally League), and managed to play in just 24 games at high Class A last year, as he missed the first two months of the season with a back injury, followed by left shoulder surgery that ended his season prematurely. It's no wonder that at the beginning of this season, Jennings told me he was "just trying to stay healthy; trying to get back in the flow."

Well, consider him flowing.

Jennings has excelled for the Rays' Double-A club in the Southern League this year, entering Wednesday hitting .327 with a .403 on-base percentage and a .518 slugging percentage. He's also walked 29 times with just 35 strikeouts in 63 games, and has gone 22-for-26 on the basepaths. Those numbers certainly catch your attention.

"There's no one thing I need to work on after missing a whole season," Jennings said, "because I need to work on everything after losing all that time."

Jennings was a 10th-round pick in the 2006 draft out of a community college in Mississippi, and had even signed a letter of intent to play wide receiver at Alabama out of high school. But on the diamond, he has all the "tools" to be a prototypical leadoff man.

His swing is short to the ball, and he gets the bat through the zone quickly. Though he occasionally will overswing and get away from his contact-oriented approach, Jennings said he knows his "job is to get on base and score runs." He has excellent plate discipline, knows the strike zone, and his swing allows him to adjust to off-speed stuff well.

For a leadoff man, he's not a slap hitter by any means, and can hit balls gap-to-gap with pull power. The 6-foot-2, 180-pound right-handed batter projects to have teens homer totals in the big leagues.

His biggest asset is his 70 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale, which allows him to make up for the occasional misreads in center field and create havoc on the basepaths. There's very little not to like aside from the injury history, and he's stayed on the field thus far this season, as he still has to demonstrate that his durability issues are behind him.

It's an easy and somewhat obvious comparison to liken Jennings to a right-handed version of his future teammate Carl Crawford, but it's no less apt. The Rays can afford to be a little patient with him, as he may be a year away, but fantasy players know how special a player Crawford is and Jennings should be worth the wait if he can stay out of the trainer's room.

Sticking with prospects that were relatively overlooked at the beginning of the year but are generating buzz, the Phillies have a starting pitcher in the low minors making some noise:

Jason Knapp, SP, Phillies

Jason Knapp
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIJason Knapp has allowed three earned runs in his past four starts for Class A Lakewood.
Knapp was a second-round pick in 2008 out of a New Jersey high school, and he has been dominant in low Class A this season. After acquitting himself well in six rookie league starts after signing last season, Knapp has struck out 86 batters in 69 2/3 innings this year, giving up 29 walks while posting a 3.62 ERA in 13 starts. He announced his presence with authority in a late April start in which he struck out 14 in seven shutout innings.

Knapp has a big, durable, 6-5, 220-pound pitcher's body, and has noticeably lost some baby fat during the past year while strengthening his lower half. He'll turn just 19 in August and was drafted largely for his frame and raw arm strength.

He sits comfortably in the 93 mph range, but often dials it up to 96 with a long motion but relatively smooth arm action, and as expected, has picked up velocity as a pro and also maintains it in the stretch. He has a hard curveball that really acts more like a power slider with a sharp break. It's a nasty pitch, but he needs to improve his command and consistency, as quite a few get wide, and other times he'll let his arm angle get too low, flattening out the break. His low-80s change has sink and fade and projects as a solid average pitch, but he slows his arm occasionally and it also needs more consistency. However, he has shown he can throw all three of his pitches for strikes.

Right now, his raw stuff is good enough to just blow away low-level hitters, and though he's starting to gain some feel and learn about pitch selection and how to mix things up, he's going to need to repeat his delivery better in order to find the more consistent command he's going to need as he moves up the ladder. Sometimes his arm slot wanders, and sometimes he doesn't finish his pitches, or adds recoil at the end of his delivery.

He's averaging just over five innings per start because his strikeouts have the side effect of pushing up his pitch counts when he's on a strict 100-pitch limit per outing. There was talk among scouts about converting Knapp to closing when he was drafted, that his fastball would be consistently in the high-90s in the bullpen, but that talk has died down for now given his success thus far in his first full pro season. Though he's a ways away, he's going to rapidly move up many prospect lists, and at such a young age has plenty of time to refine his repertoire. Those in long-term keeper or dynasty leagues with deep farm systems will likely find Knapp still available in many cases, and he's a pitcher you want to snatch up.

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