This week’s series between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays has been all about MLB debuts. On Tuesday, the entire MLB world turned its attention to Tampa to tune in for the promotion of one of the most heralded prospects in recent memory, as Connor Wong pinch-ran in the top of the 11th inning, following in the footsteps of Cal Ripken Jr. In addition, Wander Franco made his debut for the Rays.
In all seriousness, Franco was clearly the draw on Tuesday, as the 20-year-old is considered the best prospect in baseball by anyone who has even thought the word prospect. Franco lived up to the billing, going 2-for-4 with a walk, double, home run and three RBI while batting in the second spot in the order for the Rays in what turned into a 9-5 win for the Red Sox.
Although no other team has a prospect as universally acclaimed as Franco, the Red Sox are still waiting to call on some of their most heralded up-and-comers, including Jarren Duran (even if they shouldn’t be waiting on him). But we’re not here to talk about Duran. No, instead, I’d like to check in with the Red Sox’s own top middle infield prospect: Jeter Downs.
Acquired as part of the Mookie Betts trade in February of 2020, Downs immediately became one of the Red Sox’s top prospects the moment the deal was finalized. A former first-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds, the 22-year-old is currently ranked the No. 2 prospect in the Red Sox’s system by FanGraphs and the No. 36 overall prospect in all of baseball by MLB.com. It’s easy to see why, as Downs can play multiple positions, including second base and shortstop, while flashing more than a little power and speed. FanGraphs currently has his future value set at 50 on the 20-80 scale, which equates to “average everyday player,” but there is certainly potential for more as Downs develops.
Speaking of that development, how is Downs doing this year? As with most prospects, Downs missed an entire year of working on his baseball skills in live-game action at the minor league level due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. But before the pause, Downs was gradually climbing the ranks across the Cincinnati Reds’ and Los Angeles Dodgers’ systems, providing above average offensive production along the way, including a 134 wRC+ in 479 plate appearances in High-A ball in 2019 before earning a promotion and throwing up a 207 wRC+ across a scant 56 plate appearances in Double-A.
Despite such a limited amount of time above A ball, Downs was at spring training for the Red Sox this year and he provided a positive first impression for his new club. He ended up recording 18 at-bats to produce a slash line of .278/.409/.611. It was a small sample, of course, but a nice start to his Red Sox career, ultimately earning him an immediate promotion from where he ended 2019, as he was sent to Triple-A to play for the Worcester Red Sox.
In the months that have followed, Downs’ ascent has slowed to a degree. After he crushed pitches at the lower levels, he is still working on getting acclimated to Triple-A competition. Through 140 plate appearances, he is slashing .250/.329/.419 with six home runs, leading to an exactly average wRC+ of 100. Part of the issue has been a sudden rise in Downs’ strikeout rate. After showing patience in the lower levels, Downs is striking out 32.1 percent of the time this season, which far outpaces his previous high of 20.3 percent in High-A in 2019. He’s also pulling the ball less frequently and although it hasn’t cratered entirely, his walk rate has also dipped a bit, sitting at 9.3% after he posted an 11.3 percent mark in High-A in 2019 (and a 10.7 percent mark in that brief stint in Double-A).
It’s tough to be too disheartened by Downs’ performance, however. After all, going a year without getting in the batter’s box against live minor league pitching, let alone pitching at a level you haven’t reached yet, would throw anyone off. What’s helped buoy an otherwise average season has been Downs’ still in-tact speed (nine stolen bases) and some brilliant individual games, such as when he bashed two home runs on June 13 or when he slammed a clutch home run on June 17 or even when he laced four hits in a game earlier this week.
Taking them Downs with one swing pic.twitter.com/yggNfqM1jS— Worcester Red Sox (@WooSox) June 18, 2021
So now that we’ve looked at where Downs is now, it’s time to discuss where he will be, or more accurately, when he will be making his MLB debut. According to FanGraphs, we shouldn’t hold our breath for this year, as the site has Downs projected to get his first bit of playing time at the MLB level in 2022. At face value, that makes sense. As good as they’ve been this year, the Red Sox probably won’t be rushing anyone into the lineup, as we’ve seen with Duran. In addition, Downs is clearly working to get into a rhythm at the Triple-A level, so promoting him to the majors too soon could be bad for all parties involved. That’s not to say that a player with so-so stats in Triple-A can’t come up and immediately perform against MLB competition, but given the Red Sox’s apparent conservative strategy for player advancement, Downs’ production isn’t forcing their hand.
However, that might not be the case all season, especially if Christian Arroyo misses more time. You see, the Red Sox could use a permanent and effective second baseman. Arroyo has provided fireworks and clutch moments and really deserves the job right now, but even with his contributions, the Red Sox are tied for 22nd in baseball in fWAR from their second basemen (0.8), with other regular contributors like Enrique Hernández and Marwin Gonzalez both below average offensively. It would still take a lot to see Downs in Boston this year other than as a September call-up (especially since he isn’t on the 40-man roster currently), but if he straightens things out at the plate in Triple-A, maybe it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. Even if it is, the question is when, not if, Downs gets the chance to take over a regular role, just like it was for Franco.
All statistics are from before games on June 23.