Jennings expects smooth transition to center
After playing left last year, 26-year-old moving back to natural position
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Although B.J. Upton departed via free agency during the offseason, the Rays don't have to look too far to find his replacement. Rather than running toward left field this season, Desmond Jennings will veer to the right and take over Tropicana Field's vast center field.
Upton patrolled the area for 5 1/2 seasons, using his speed and arm to play a splendid brand of defense. Jennings should bring more of the same. The 26-year-old welcomes position switch and doesn't feel he'll need to make many adjustments.
"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."
The change isn't really as easy as Jennings makes it sound. Center field is a demanding position that requires a unique type of athlete. Everybody thought Carl Crawford was a natural to play center field when he was with the Rays, but he preferred left. Although Crawford played a few games in center, the move never became permanent. Now you have Jennings making the move. Remember, Jennings was in the running for an American League Gold Glove Award for left field in 2012. He shrugged his shoulders at the mention of his excellence in left.
"Yeah, I know, but I just feel like center field is more natural for me," Jennings said. "There's more responsibility. You've got more ground to cover, but it's a position I love to play."
Crawford used to note that one of the drawbacks to playing center field was making the throw to home, which had to clear the pitcher's mound. The arm strength to make such a throw can present an obstacle to any center-field candidate. Jennings flashed his confident smile when asked if the mound presented a problem.
"I don't think so," Jennings said. "I won't have to make as many throws as I'll have to get balls hit in the gap. Obviously the mound is there, but as far as it being a problem, I don't consider it a problem."
Outfield coach Dave Martinez believes that the center-field torch will be smoothly passed from Upton to Jennings.
"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."
While praising the possibilities for Jennings, Martinez wanted to make sure that he fully complimented Upton for the work he did while with the Rays.
"B.J., by far, he caught up to balls I never thought anybody could catch," Martinez said. "D.J. has done that in left field, too. He'll cover just as much ground as B.J. will."
While Martinez noted that Upton does have a stronger arm than Jennings, he doesn't feel like that will be a problem.
"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.'"
Matt Moore noted that he likes having Jennings in the outfield when he's pitching.
"Desmond runs fearless out there," Moore said. "He's run into a couple of walls for us. I remember one time he dove straight into the wall and caught one. So he's by far my favorite outfielder, because he's running out there without any regard. [All of the pitchers] are looking forward to him being out there in center field."
Moore noted that having an outfielder like Jennings gives a pitcher a lot of confidence.
"Especially when you see a ball go to the gap," Moore said. "You kind of hold your anger at yourself a little bit, you think you gave up a double and then here he comes snow-coning it down. So it's nice to have that speed in the gaps."
Jennings might not make fans forget the way Upton played center field, as he made a lot of great plays while playing the position -- many of which made fans and opposing teams shake their heads -- but Jennings should put his own unmistakable stamp on the position as well.
"I don't think we're going to miss much," Martinez said. "B.J. did have a stronger arm, but as far as covering ground and playing center field, I think Desmond is ready for the challenge. For me, he is a center fielder, so it should be no problem."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.