Eric Jenkins is the starting centerfielder for the Hickory Crawdads. At the age of 19, he is also considered one of the Texas Rangers top prospects.
Jenkins was selected in the second round in last June’s MLB Draft out of West Columbus High School in North Carolina. The Rangers signed him quickly to a $2-million signing bonus, to make sure the elite speedster would stick with them and not go to UNC-Wilmington where he had previously committed.
"I’m blessed to be drafted in the second round," Jenkins said. "It was a cool experience to be drafted by the Texas Rangers coming out of high school. It was an easy decision to make, because I always wanted to play pro ball, it was my dream."
That’s all a thing in the past. Jenkins has to put all of the hoopla behind him and focus on one thing.
"Now, it’s baseball time," Jenkins said. "I don’t want to get big headed. I try to stay humble no matter what the situation is and that’s what I do. I try not to focus on the second round or the money, I just focus on playing baseball."
His 2015 debut went well for the then-18 year old. He slashed .249/.342/.339 for the Arizona League Rangers, and showed off his biggest asset: top grade, elite speed. He would go 27-for-30 in stolen base attempts, and posted a respectable 57-to-23 strikeout-to-walk ratio. It earned him a quick promotion to Hickory to end the season, where he would go an impressive 7-for-18 at the plate in five games.
It all cumulated in an invite to his first spring training.
"My first spring training was pretty good," Jenkins said. "I took some time to sit down with some big league players like Delino DeShields, James Jones, Ian Desmond, the outfielders. I got time to sit down and talk to them about what to do and what not to do in baseball, and pick their minds about what it’s like in the big leagues. It was a very cool experience. I got a chance to play in a big league ball game."
This season has been more of a learning curve for Jenkins, as he has seen both ups and downs. The one thing in his favor is that the current Hickory team is much different than the 2015 reigning Sally champs. This team is built on what Jenkins does best: speed.
"It’s very exciting," Jenkins said of how fast the Crawdads team is. "At the beginning of the season our philosophy was to put a lot of pressure on the defense. Basically, we don't have a lot of power guys, but we got speed. Our job was to get the runners in scoring position and put a lot of pressure on defense."
Don’t be fooled. As Jenkins matures, he is becoming a well-rounded player, blessed with the natural athleticism that plays well in every aspect of the game. His defense is coming along, as his speed gives him advanced range, which helps to make up for average arm strength. He is also learning to use the gaps at the plate, as he has six doubles and six triples on the season.
"I don’t want to be known as just a fast, slap hitter," Jenkins said. "I got pretty good power. Gap to gap power. I try to play with the infield, see where the infield is. If they play me in, I can put it in the hole, if not I could lay a bunt down."
While speed is still Jenkins biggest asset — he leads the SAL in stolen bases with 35 in 45 attempts, so at nearly 80-percent he is wise in his selections as well — Jenkins is developing his other skills as well. He has added his first four professional home runs of his career, so slowly he is adding some power to his 6-foot-1, 170 pound frame.
"I’m not working on power," Jenkins said of his newly found home run pop. "I’m just working on putting the ball in play more. Where it falls, it falls."
Jenkins hit a slump in May, seeing his average drop as low as .196. June has been a different story. He is slowly stringing together hits, looking more like a professional hitter at the plate. Heading into Saturday night’s action, he had been hitting .308 over his previous five games. He now has his average up to .223 on the season, nearly 30 points higher than it was just a month ago.
"Right now, I’m still trying to find my swing," Jenkins said. "When I was in my slump I was overdoing things, instead of letting them come to me by themselves, I was trying to make it happen instead of letting it happen. Right now, I’m more relaxed. I’m seeing the ball good and feel comfortable."
Last night was more of the same from Jenkins. He lead off the Crawdads half of the first inning with a single up the middle. The very first pitch to the next batter — Hickory second baseman Frandy De La Rosa — the Kannapolis Intimidators catcher Daniel Rodriguez came out of the shoot throwing to second… but Jenkins didn’t even run. That’s what he does. He’s so fast and so successful on the base paths, he has the defense thinking what his next move is. Of course, several plays later, Jenkins made him pay and did swipe second base. He finished the night 1-for-3, but drew a walk and scored in their three-run rally in the bottom of the sixth.
I didn’t get to see too much in the field, as right fielder Sherman Larcus stole the show with two amazing diving catches, but I did see something I liked. On Jenkins first opportunity, he missed his cutoff man and threw it long. He responded two batters later, and hit his cut off man, who as able to nail Intimidators Micker Adolfo at second base as he tried to stretch out a single.
Jenkins has now played professionally for roughly a year. He has developed into one of the Rangers top prospects, and is showing signs of becoming that all-around threat they envisioned when they drafted him in the second round. So, what’s different from the high school kid who became a high draft pick, to the Eric Jenkins who is starting centerfielder for the Hickory Crawdads?
"It’s a job now," Jenkins said. "You have to take things seriously. You can’t just play for fun anymore, you have to play for your job."