BRADENTON -- Potential is a word that has been attached to Desmond Jennings since he was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in 2006.
At first, the word was all about how he was overflowing with talent and a budding superstar waiting to explode.
The Baseball America scouting report on Jennings in 2008 said he had exceptional speed and a discerning eye to become a prototypical leadoff hitter and center fielder and that his strike-zone judgment rates among the best in the Rays system.
But as the outfielder approaches his 30th birthday in October the talk has changed. Words like disappointment now dot the conversations about him, and another part of that scouting report looms large. The report said his big weakness was simple: "He needs to stay healthy."
Rays manager Kevin Cash has said when Jennings is in the lineup he is often the best athlete on the field for either team.
Jennings was a JUCO All-American wide receiver in football, and there is no doubt he is athletically gifted. But athleticism doesn't guarantee success in baseball as much as it does in
football or basketball.
As the saying goes, if you can't hit a breaking ball, you can't hit a breaking ball.
Last season was supposed to be the breakout year for Jennings.
Stopped by injuries
He came into camp in the best shape of his life and had a great spring. But it turned into a nightmare.
Jennings played in 28 games because of a left knee injury and a tooth infection that required oral surgery.
During the off season, the Rays brought in Corey Dickerson and this spring the outfield seems more crowded than rush hour in Grand Central Station.
Jennings said last year's misfortune will not affect him in 2016, and he is not intimidated by the competition to keep his job.
"You always have to think you are the best athlete on the field. Everyone should think that about themselves," Jennings said.
"What I learned from last year is put it all behind me and move forward. I am not trying to go back to last season. It is what it is. It happened and it's over."
As for his career not meeting early expectations or projections, there was speculation that the Rays didn't help by trying to force him into the leadoff spot in the lineup when he was better suited to bat lower.
Jennings doesn't want to get into that conversation. He said he doesn't care where he hits in the lineup and is OK playing left field now that Kevin Kiermaier has established himself in center field.
"I feel good. It's a relief to have full range of motion in my knee. This is the healthiest I've been in quite awhile," Jennings said. "My mind is right, just to be able to play the game again and be out on the field and having fun. I am enjoying it."
Others in the mix for time in left field are Brandon Guyer, who replaced Jennings in left last year, Dickerson and Mikie Mahtook. Jennings went 2 for 3 with a double in the Rays' 4-3 loss to Pittsburgh on Friday.
For the spring, he is hitting .538 with 7 hits in 13 at-bats including five doubles and a homer.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has been consistent in Grapefruit League games, boasting a .360 career spring batting average. But he hasn't been able to carry that into the regular season.
"Desmond was having a great spring last year and then the injury bug got him. You can't separate that," Cash said. "He is having another great spring, and you couldn't be happier with what he has done. He is really swinging the bat well."