Commentary

Staring at 'The Future'

Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth working alongside their heirs apparent

Updated: March 12, 2010, 11:27 AM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- It's a picture only spring training can paint, an intersection you can find only on your spring training map.

It's that rarefied place where The Present meets The Future. And nobody is watching except the whole darned planet.

So here, in a corner of the Tampa Bay Rays' sprawling clubhouse, you find two lockers parked conspicuously adjacent to each other. One belongs to Carl Crawford, the face of his franchise today. The other belongs to Desmond Jennings, the Rays' resident face of tomorrow.

"I guess they put me here for a reason," Jennings says.

Yep. Perceptive young man.

"We put it like that," Crawford says. "They want him to learn to do things the right way. It won't be that long 'til he'll be here, so we just want to get him ready."

But it isn't only them. And it isn't only their team. Precisely 97 miles up the spring training highway, virtually the identical phenomenon is unfolding in the camp of the Philadelphia Phillies.

On a peaceful spring morning, on a back field at the Carpenter Complex, you can find two men standing on the same patch of right field.

[+] EnlargeJayson Werth
AP Photo/Eric GayIs Jayson Werth, who turns 31 on May 20, worth keeping? He blasted 36 home runs, drove in 99 runs and stole 20 bags last season.
One is Jayson Werth, a vital part of the Phillies' championship mix now but also a fellow whose date with free agency is floating barely beyond his horizon. The other is Domonic Brown, just a talented kid wearing No. 78 at the moment but also a shooting star whose orbit is bound for Philadelphia sooner than later.

"I called him 'The Future' today," Werth says of Brown. "He didn't like it too much. I thought it was a compliment. I meant it as a compliment."

"I thought he was just messing around," Brown says of Werth. "Then he kept saying it. So I was like, 'Be quiet.'"

But in spring training, you know The Future when you see it. You can't hide it. You can't miss it. Especially when you have two slices of baseball life as clear-cut as these two.

For now, left field in Tampa Bay is Crawford's personal real estate, just as right field in Philadelphia is Werth's personal turf. But for how much longer?

Their contract clocks are ticking. Their free agency will arrive the minute this season ends. Their price tags probably will exceed the dollars in their teams' checking accounts. So they're not gone yet. But they can see the exit ramp from here.

And so can their heirs apparent. Jennings and Brown know the story, know the contractual math. What they don't know -- or, at least, what they'd rather not mull too long or hard -- is how that mathematics class figures into their own little curriculum.

"I don't even know," Jennings says of Crawford. "I don't even want to know. I just hope he's here."

"I know what's going on," Brown says of Werth. "But I don't like to think about that at all. This game's real mental. So I don't like to think about it. I really don't. All I can do is play hard and hopefully put up some good numbers, and take it from there."

But the stars on the other side of this fascinating rectangle have a clearer view -- or at least a more experienced view -- of where all this is leading.

Once, they sat where Jennings and Brown sit. Once, they were the kids waiting for veteran players to move out of the way so their big league fun could begin.

So nobody has to connect the dots for Crawford and Werth now that it's their jobs that could very well be handed out, in a year, to two of the top 15 prospects in the whole sport. They know what The Future looks like when they see it roaring right at them.

"He's definitely The Future here," Crawford says of Jennings, ESPN.com's No. 6-rated prospect in baseball. "I know he'll be in this outfield somewhere. … And if things don't work out with me here, then I hope he has the opportunity to play."

"Could he take my job? Yeah. For sure," Werth says of Brown, ESPN.com's 14th-ranked prospect. "When I called him 'The Future,' I was being serious. I think this guy has a chance to be a special player. And he's got the kind of personality I think could fit in on this team."

More importantly, though, Brown and Jennings have the kind of talent that would make it easier for their front offices to cut the cord with two players it otherwise would kill them to lose.

Jennings, 23, is the more advanced of these two heirs apparent. He's a polished 6-foot-2, 200-pound sprint champ who spent enough time in Double-A to win the Southern League MVP award last year. Then, after he reached Triple-A in late July, he actually had a higher average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage at that level than in Double-A.

He had a 7-for-7 game in September. He put on a three-stolen-base show in the Futures Game. And he was the only player in the minor leagues to top 50 steals and 50 extra-base hits. So his ETA is, basically, any time now -- the wrist injury that shelved him for the spring this week notwithstanding.

But Jennings isn't ready to think those thoughts, or apply any timetables, or play that game of great expectations. "I just want to go out and play, have fun, enjoy the season, stay healthy -- and hopefully," he says, his eyes sweeping across that big league clubhouse, "sit in one of these chairs sometime this season."

Brown, on the other hand, would seem to be a guy with more rungs to climb on his ladder to stardom. He's a chiseled 6-5 hulkster whose body type and tools are often likened to a young Darryl Strawberry. But his flight to the big time was rudely interrupted by a fractured finger in June. So at age 22, he has spent barely more than a month of his career above Class A. And he still has yet to reach 15 homers or 25 doubles in any pro season.

You know, last year, I called Jason Donald 'The Future,' and he got traded.

-- Phillies right fielder Jayson Werth

The good news for the Phillies is you don't need to be a descendant of Branch Rickey to detect Brown's five-tool skill set. The bad news is it would seem to be a stretch to think he'll be ready to pick up where Werth left off a year from now.

But it's a stretch only in other people's minds -- not for Brown himself.

Asked where he could see himself in a year, he replied, "Hopefully here. Hopefully in the big leagues. Hopefully, I'll have a good year … and come into spring training in good shape and prepare myself to make the club. I set my goals real high. I always do that."

In a perfect world, the Phillies wouldn't rush him into anything he isn't ready for. But let's get real. Every one of their regular position players is signed beyond this year except Werth. They already have more than $130 million committed to 15 players for 2011 -- and Werth isn't one of them.

So if their right fielder has another 36-homer, 20-steal, .879 OPS, lead-the-league-in-pitches-seen kind of year, he'll be looking at a Jason Bay-type contract that the Phillies would have a rough time affording. Which means they'll be watching Brown's progress verrrrrry carefully this summer.

But for now, as the palm trees sway and spring training unfolds, Werth and Brown still share the same uniform, the same clubhouse, the same box scores. Sometimes even in lockstep.

"I'm trying to just see what he's doing and do that," Brown says of Werth. "Obviously he's doing something right as a player and as an outfielder."

"I think I respect him enough as a baseball player and as a guy," Werth says of Brown, "to help him out as much as I can and not really feel like it has any effect on me one way or the other."

It could be uncomfortable, you know -- this present meets future stuff -- if you had different men, with different personalities, involved. But Werth and Crawford have reached the stage where they know who they are, what they are and what they mean to their teams. So there's no sign -- none -- that they feel threatened in any way by the phenoms who easily could turn into, well, them.

"It's not uncomfortable for me at all," Crawford says. "I understand the situation. That has nothing to do with him."

But it does, of course. Maybe Crawford's price tag couldn't fit into this team's soon-to-be shrinking payroll under any circumstances. But having Jennings around clearly makes it easier for the Rays to stomach waving so long to the face of their franchise. What Jennings' presence doesn't do, though, is make this situation harder on Crawford.

"Whether he's here or not, I'm still on the last year of my contract," Crawford says. "So it doesn't matter if he's here or not. Somebody's going to have to play left field if I'm not here."

Yeah, that's usually how it works, all right. And the man on the other end of this equation is thinking the same way. Jennings is still consumed by his mission to reach the big leagues, whether Crawford is playing next to him or someone else.

"His contract -- that has nothing to do with me or what's going on around here," Jennings says of Crawford. "I mean, I want to play beside him forever. I want to get a chance to play with him. But who knows?"

Well, lots of people think they know. It seems so obvious where this is heading -- for all four of these men. But nothing about this sport is ever as predictable as it seems. So this road still could zig or zag in all sorts of unforeseen directions. Remember that.

"You know, last year, I called Jason Donald 'The Future,'" Werth says with a laugh, "and he got traded."

So it can be a dangerous game, looking into these crystal balls and trying to predict exactly what you'll see in these two clubhouses next spring. But as you watch these four guys do their thing this spring, it's hard not to be conscious of what's at stake for all of them.

They're getting ready for 2010. But for the teams that employ them, 2011 never floats too far off the radar screen. All players can do, though, is play. So that's what Crawford, Jennings, Werth and Brown will do -- go play. And the only sane way to go about doing that is to keep their brain waves focused on the present.

It's their bosses' jobs, in baseball's circus, to do that eternal juggling act of present and future. So what happens when it comes time for their teams to make those big, life-altering, team-altering decisions?

"That," says Werth, "is where my job ends -- and someone else's begins."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com