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One Big Question: Can Jeter Downs make consistent contact against advanced pitching?

He’s a post-hype prospect who could get back in the top prospect picture this summer.

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Jeter Downs, April 2021
Kelly O’Connor

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Jeter Downs.

The Question: Can Jeter Downs put the ball in play against advanced pitching?

If we rewind back to around this time two years ago, we were still just coming off of the Mookie Betts trade following all of the drama around the idea of trading the team’s best player as well as the drama of the original trade that was nixed. In the revised trade that actually ended up going through, there was some debate as to who was actually the best long-term player received in the deal between Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs. The former had big-league experience to go with top prospect pedigree, but the latter was a middle infielder coming off a huge year who had what appeared to be a higher ceiling.

Fast-forward back to today, and Verdugo has put up two solid seasons as a starting outfielder in the majors while Downs, well, he’s trending down. He was not able to really play in game action in that first season with the Red Sox due to COVID shutting down the minors, but he did take part in team workouts at the Alternate Site in Pawtucket that summer. The reviews weren’t great, but it was hard to judge anybody coming out of that strange environment for which we really had no comparison.

That led us to last season when Downs was a consensus top two prospect in the system and a top 100 prospect in all of baseball. Despite having just limited time at Double-A prior to 2021, the team made a somewhat aggressive move to promote the infielder to Triple-A in his age-22 season. In hindsight it may have been too aggressive, though at the time it didn’t seem unreasonable, especially since he had participated in Alternate Site workouts the prior year.

But whether or not it was the right move is basically besides the point right now, because we know how things ended up. It was a very tough year for Downs in Worcester, and in a season that saw many Red Sox prospects trending upwards and breaking out, Downs was one of the few to go in the other direction. On the season he hit .190/.272/.333, and he is nowhere to be found on top 100 lists at this point and out of the top five in Boston’s organization on most every list.

So that’s all the negatives, but there is still plenty of reason to be excited about Downs. He’s now largely settled in as a second baseman rather than a shortstop, but that’s still a valuable middle infield position which he can play at at least an average level. At the plate, he has the potential to be an above-average bat for his position, with the ability to impact the baseball on contact and hit for average power. The issue is he needs to make contact to tap into those skills, and that was just not something that happened last season.

Downs was once a prospect whose future value seemingly relied in large part on his hit tool projections, but he’s coming off a season in which he struck out a whopping 32 percent of the time. This is way out of line from what we had seen earlier in his career, where his previous career-high was a merely 20 percent rate. Of course, that was in High-A, and the jump in pitching quality from that level to Triple-A, right on the cusp of the majors, is large. In the lower levels, he could rely on his strong swing and jump on pitches early in counts to do damage. Against more advanced pitching, though, he was having some trouble with higher velocity, fell behind in counts, and we see what happened from there.

Jeter Downs, May 2021
Kelly O’Connor

All of this makes for a huge season coming up for Downs. In Keith Law’s writeup of the top Red Sox prospects, he mentions scouts he talked to putting the blame on a snowball effect of sorts. In essence, they saw after Downs started struggling he began to get down on himself and everything just snowballed from there. Law points to Downs’ mini resurgence in the Arizona Fall League as a point in favor of this. It’s also roughly in line with some of the talk around Downs coming out of the Alternate Site. If that’s the case, it’s crucial that he gets off to a good start in the coming season (assuming it comes), and specifically with regard to making contact.

We talked just last week about the team’s struggles in recent years finding a consistent option at second base, an issue that Downs himself was supposed to be the one to solve after joining the organization. There was some hope he’d be able to get some reps there at the big league level as soon as last season. Now, a year later, he’s still yet to make that debut and there is now another top prospect in Nick Yorke whose stock is going in the exact opposite of Downs’.

Still, all of the skills are there for Downs to be a starter at the major-league level, and one season with an arguably over-aggressive placement (again, I’m not sure I buy that argument, but it’s not unreasonable) shouldn’t be enough to write off that potential future. That said, Downs is going to need to figure out how to make more contact against advanced pitching. The skills are there on contact as we saw in that AFL performance mentioned above, but he’s going to need to make adjustments because he’s just seeing a whole new level pitching acumen in Triple-A, and eventually the majors. The search for a long-term second baseman is still on, and while Yorke currently has the inside track, Downs is closer to the majors and really only a hot six weeks to start this season away from putting himself firmly back in that conversation.