In the coming weeks, NESN.com will profile some of the more noteworthy prospects in the Red Sox system, utilizing insight and analysis from industry experts who know the players best. Next up: Jeter Downs, a 2017 first-round pick acquired last offseason from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Although Alex Verdugo performed admirably last season after joining the Red Sox in the trade that sent Mookie Betts to the Dodgers, the emergence of Jeter Downs — another key piece of the blockbuster — ultimately might be what changes the narrative in Boston’s favor.
This isn’t to say Downs will blossom into a superstar like Betts, a generational talent and one of the best players in Major League Baseball. For some, the trade simply never will be justifiable.
The reality, however, is Boston would’ve risked blowing past the luxury tax threshold and then losing Betts in free agency for nothing but draft pick compensation had it not swung the deal with Los Angeles. And Downs, like Verdugo, has the potential to become a long-term staple in the Red Sox’s lineup, a development that would make the Betts trade much easier for Boston to stomach in hindsight.
So, when could we see Downs debut in the majors? Here’s everything you need to know about the 22-year-old infielder, who, yes, is named after New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter.
That guy named after a Hall of Famer. That guy traded for Yasiel Puig. That guy traded for Mookie Betts.
Someday, the world might know Jeter Downs for being Jeter Downs, a really good major leaguer. Until then, he’ll be known as much for his unique road to The Show — a journey that began in Colombia (where he was born), continued in Florida (where he was raised and played high school baseball), picked up steam in Cincinnati (where he was drafted by the Reds in June 2017), gained notoriety in Los Angeles (where he was traded to the Dodgers in December 2018) and now is continuing in Boston (where he’s still waiting to play his first official game in the Red Sox organization thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the entire 2020 minor league season).
Let’s start from the beginning, with Downs’ name: He was born on July 27, 1998, right in the heart of Derek Jeter’s first All-Star season in New York, which culminated with the shortstop’s second of five World Series titles.
“When (Jeter) came into the major leagues (in 1995), he was the name. He was the thing. He was shining,” Downs explained after being drafted by the Reds in 2017, per MLB.com. “It was ‘Jeter this, Jeter that.’ It was actually my mom’s idea. My brother got Jerry from my dad (Jerry Sr.). It was my mom’s turn to pick a name since I was a second child. She just fell in love with Jeter and the way he played, his humbleness, how he carried himself on and off the field.”
We might’ve suggested “Nomar” at the time, but “Jeter” works, too.
Nevertheless, Downs soon stood out on the diamond, much like his older brother, Jerry, who interestingly enough was selected by the Red Sox in the 15th round of the 2015 MLB Draft and most recently spent the 2019 season split between High-A Salem and Double-A Portland. Downs starred at Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Miami Gardens, Fla., and forwent a commitment to the University of Miami in order to sign with the Reds and begin his professional career.
“It was my mom’s turn to pick a name, since I was a second child. She just fell in love with Jeter and the way he played, his humbleness, how he carried himself off the field.”Jeter Downs
About 18 months later, the Reds traded Downs, Homer Bailey and Josiah Gray to the Dodgers for Puig, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood, Kyle Farmer and cash considerations. His time in Los Angeles’ system proved brief.
The Red Sox acquired Downs, Verdugo and Connor Wong from the Dodgers in exchange for Betts and David Price in February 2020 — a move that wasn’t without some confusion, as Los Angeles included Downs only after Boston balked at a separate return package that included then-Minnesota Twins prospect Brusdar Graterol. (The Red Sox had concerns about Graterol’s medicals.)
“Our scouting reports came in stiffer, stronger, better grades,” Red Sox vice president of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum recently told The Boston Globe regarding Downs’ breakout 2019 season in the Dodgers system. “As the season kept going on, while he was with the Dodgers, we noticed in the office with some of our objective work — batted-ball data, what have you — we noticed that there was a hint of some sort of something changing. He was taking off.”
Now, Downs is considered one of the Red Sox’s two top prospects. He worked at the team’s alternate training site last season and has been with the major league club this spring as a non-roster invitee. He’s yet to play above Double-A but presumably will spend a good chunk of 2021 at Triple-A Worcester.
Downs isn’t the most physically imposing prospect, listed at 5-foot-11 and 195 pounds. He also doesn’t have the loudest tools, which probably takes away a little bit of shine in the minds of some talent evaluators looking for the next big thing.
Instead, he’s solid across the board, giving him a high floor and perhaps a relatively modest ceiling.
“With Downs, it’s more a bunch of really solid to above-average tools,” SoxProspects.com director of scouting Ian Cundall recently told NESN.com.
Overall, it’s a package that, while not incredibly sexy, is fascinating to work with, especially when you combine Downs’ diverse skill set with a strong work ethic and a high baseball IQ.
“Our group was extremely excited to see a well-rounded baseball player that can impact the game in a variety of ways — with his baseball intelligence, bat, glove and legs,” Red Sox director of player development Brian Abraham recently told MLB.com. “The athleticism, instincts and pure ability that he already has, combined with his competitiveness and dedication to improve, are a few of the things that make him a fun guy to watch and work with. We have challenged him to continue to get better and he’s taken that challenge head on.”
Downs, drafted as a shortstop, can play both middle-infield positions, but he projects to land at second base, where he could be an above-average defender. If nothing else, he won’t hurt Boston in the field.
“He really works at the hitting craft, and if there’s one thing that I think can play above the projection, it’s definitely that.”Ian Cundall, SoxProspects.com
Offensively, Downs might not have light-tower power. But he definitely possesses sneaky pop, which he showed while homering in his first spring training at-bat with the Red Sox this season, and a hit tool that eventually might exceed expectations.
“I really like his swing. … The hands are very impressive, and we saw he’s got that natural feel where he’ll use all fields,” Cundall said. “I think his home run was to right-center field, just a hard line drive. I think that’s the one tool that could go above, because I like his approach, the strikeout rate I think is going to be very manageable, he’s going to walk at a good clip, and he just seems like he’s kinda a student of the game. He really works at the hitting craft, and if there’s one thing that I think can play above the projection, it’s definitely that.”
While Downs doesn’t have great speed, he has racked up 69 stolen bases in 289 career minor league games. He’ll probably swipe a few bags here and there at the major league level.
Most-likely outcome: Average to above-average second baseman.
What Downs lacks in wow factor, he makes up for with versatility, consistency and dependability, all of which should play at the highest level.
“The best major leaguers have a lot of talent, but are also the most consistent and do the ‘little things’ really well. They make the routine plays, grind out every AB and are smart on the base paths,” Abraham told MLB.com. “Along with just the general improvements and refining of his game overall, those are things that Jeter will continue to work on and improve upon wherever he starts this year.”
Best-case scenario: All-Star caliber infielder, capable of winning a batting title.
The Athletic’s Keith Law recently placed Downs at No. 56 on his top 100 prospects list, in large because of the infielder’s “pretty high floor” but also because of his offensive profile. Downs controls the strike zone, makes consistent contact and sprays balls into the gaps, all of which suggest high batting averages and on-base percentages could be in his future.
“Downs is an advanced hitter for his age, making hard contact with a line drive-oriented swing that helped him lead the High-A California League in doubles in 2019 while he had the league’s 11th-lowest strikeout rate,” Law wrote.
“Potential solid regular with the ceiling of an impact everyday player/occasional all-star. Bat-first profile with the potential to hit in the .280 range with 20+ home runs at his peak. Defensively, profiles best at second base, but could also play short, third, and even the outfield. Lacks a standout carrying tool, but will show average-to-better in all five tools. Speed is his weakest tool, but has shown instincts to make up for it. Sum-of-all-parts type of player with a promising future.”
We’ll almost certainly see Downs in the majors at some point in 2021, perhaps sooner rather than later depending on what transpires at the big league level.
Dustin Pedroia’s retirement officially opened the door at second base, where Boston likely will use some combination of Kike Hernandez, Marwin Gonzalez and Carlos Arroyo to begin the season. Should injuries or subpar performance necessitate a change in the infield, Downs could be near the front of the Rolodex, alongside Michael Chavis and Jonathan Arauz.
The Red Sox would need to add Downs to their 40-man roster before calling him up, a requirement that might push back his ETA to later in the year but hardly preclude him from debuting this season.