DURHAM — In four years, Desmond Jennings has worked his way through the minor leagues to become one of the top prospects in the Tampa Bay Rays organization.
But only recently has he begun to return to last year's form, when he was promoted to the Bulls late in the year from Double-A Montgomery and hit .325 in 32 games as the Bulls went on to win the Triple-A title game.
"I just have got to get better," Jennings, 23, said last week, in the midst of turning around his hitting fortunes. "I haven't hit the way I want to hit. I can't go anywhere but up, so I guess we'll see."
Last week, he did go up. He was 14-for-26 (.538) with four doubles, three triples and 11 RBIs. Over the course of the week ending Sunday, Jennings of Birmingham, Ala., raised his batting average from .228 to .286. The International League voted him hitter of the week on Monday.
It was the type of display expected from Jennings, when Durham-based Baseball America magazine picked him as the top Rays prospect and top center field prospect in baseball before the season.
"In Desmond Jennings, [the Rays] have come up with yet another of their signatures: a toolsy, athletic outfielder in the Carl Crawford/B.J. Upton line," the magazine reported.
Jennings said he appreciates the accolades but downplayed them.
"Yeah, you hear it, but we've got a bunch of guys that are top prospects," he said. "I don't think it's that big of a deal. ... Anybody could have been put right up there."
The Rays didn't feel any differently about him when last season concluded, naming him their farm system's player of the year.
But Jennings missed the Bulls' first 10 games in April on the disabled list after an injury in spring training.
He jammed his left wrist on a slide while stealing second base during the preseason.
"When I got up, it didn't feel good," Jennings said.
He's also been nagged by a shoulder injury that cut short his 2007 and 2008 seasons.
"He's got a good eye, but when you have a wrist problem and your shoulder is off, you've got to change your swing and now you're facing good pitching," Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo said. "It's tough to hit, but now it seems like he's almost there."
Montoyo took it easy on him because of his injuries, and batted him seventh, where there's less pressure and less at-bats.
While his batting average this season was down around the first of June, he had some three-hit games recently before breaking out last week. After his health improved, Montoyo moved him up to second in the batting order on June 7.
Jennings immediately responded with two 3-for-5 performances at the plate.
"I'm starting to feel better," Jennings said.
Jennings said he has been spending extra time in the batting cage and taking advice from the coaching staff, including hitting coach Dave Myers.
He realizes he's only one call away from the big leagues.
"I've got to get it done right here before I can even think about that," he said. "I'm just really trying to get everything right here."
While Jennings may, indeed, have a major league future, Montoyo is cautious about projecting a timetable.
"If he stays healthy, he's part of the future," he said. "But I don't know when that's going to happen because that's one thing about the Rays, their outfielders are pretty good," Montoyo said, mentioning former Bulls Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton and Ben Zobrist. The star of that bunch, Upton, is the only one who has struggled offensively this season.
And the Bulls have outfielders Matt Joyce and Justin Ruggiano, who are also in the mix and both have more Triple-A experience than Jennings.
With the Rays in first place, there's no reason to rush.
"He hasn't played a full year of Triple-A yet," Montoyo emphasized. "So far [the Rays have] been letting guys play here. You just got to keep on playing."
Said Jennings, "I'll worry about that when I get there."
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