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Minor League Players of the Week: Jeter Downs heats up

And Portland’s staff continues to lead this system on the pitching side.

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Jeter Downs
Kelly O’Connor

With the new minor-league schedule started in 2021 being implemented that has teams playing six-game series every week with Mondays off, there are no Minor Lines on Tuesdays. We figured rather than just leaving that time slot blank every week, we’d hand out some fake, virtual hardware. Each week, we’ll pick players of the week for both position players and pitchers, as well as an honorable mention in each category.

Position Player of the Week

Jeter Downs, SS, Worcester

It’s extremely refreshing to be talking about Downs in this positive light, as we haven’t had too many chances to do so since the infielder was brought to Boston in the Mookie Betts trade two years ago. But while he has largely disappointed since joining the organization, he is coming off a big week that we hope at least will spark a longer run that could perhaps put him up in the majors later this summer. Not to get too far ahead of ourselves. Still, over the last week Downs hit .304/.407/.783, smacking three homers in six games while scoring eight runs and knocking in five. He also only struck out seven times while walking four, an improvement from what we’ve seen for most of his run at Triple-A.

After the big week, Downs’ numbers on the season look much more palatable if you can look beyond a low batting average. Now on the season the 23-year-old is hitting .224/.344/.482, which according to FanGraphs puts him 19 percent better than league-average by wRC+. On the positive side, it’s nice to see the power shining through. Downs now has a .241 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) on the season, a whole 98 points higher than the mark with which he finished a year ago. He’s also drawing walks over 13 percent of the time, more than a four percentage point increase compared to 2021.

However, even with all of that, we still need to watch that aforementioned strikeout rate. His low batting average is not really the product of poor batted ball luck, but rather a continued struggle to make contact. After striking out 32 percent of the time in 2021, Downs’ strikeout rate has actually increased in 2022, now sitting at 35 percent. It’s great to see that his power and patience is largely cancelling out his lack of contact thus far, and even more encouraging to see that rate fall to a more reasonable 22 percent this past week, but we need to continue watching this. If Downs keeps struggling to put the ball in play against Triple-A pitching, it will be hard to see him carving out much of a role in the majors even with the improved power. But those improvements start with weeks like this. Now it’s just about what comes next.

Honorable Mention: Nicholas Northcut, 3B/1B, Greenville

It was a tough call for who would get the honorable mention nod here, as Jarren Duran had a good argument himself and had a more well-rounded week. But ultimately, I felt like I had to go with Northcut. He only had four hits in the week for a .222 batting average, but all four of those hits were home runs, and he got the four homers while only playing in five games. Northcut had a somewhat quietly solid 2021, and in 2022 he’s been a little more loud about it. His contact is also an issue, and has long been the thing scouts figured would hold him back, but so far he’s been able to let the power shine through even amid contact issues. He now has eight homers on the season, one more than teammate Alex Binelas for the lead among all Red Sox prospects and tied for the lead in the South Atlantic League.

Pitcher of the Week

Jay Groome, LHP, Portland

Between the top spot and the honorable mention through the first three weeks, we’ve had six pitchers mentioned in this space now, including for this post. Five of them have been part of Portland’s pitching staff, including both for this week. Groome is in an interesting spot this year as something of a post-hype name, and he’s probably only the third most intriguing prospect in his own rotation. That hopefully will allow him to stop focusing on living up to the hype and just simply taking the ball every five days and performing. He got the first part down last season, but this year is about the consistency. The southpaw was outstanding in his one start this past week, allowing just one earned run over 5 23 innings, not walking a single batter while striking out 10.

After showing some intriguing flashes last season after a late-year promotion to Portland, Groome is picking up where he left off by missing bats and working around some instances of shaky command to put up solid numbers. He’s made four appearances — one was a relief appearance coming in after the rehabbing Josh Taylor — and has an even 3.00 ERA over 15 innings, striking out 19 and only walking five. Those numbers would look even better without one blowup start, too, when he allowed three runs and walked three while only recording a single out. We can’t just throw away the worst start of the season, especially in a sample this small, but it helps illustrate how he’s pitched in his other three appearances.

Boston Red Sox Photo Day
Jay Groome
Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

How the Red Sox handle Groome for the rest of the season will be an interesting decision process to monitor. On the one hand, he’s still kind of raw in some aspects, having spent so much of his professional career on the injured list and still having these lapses in command. On the other hand, we’ve seen he has the talent to succeed in the high minors, and he’s burning his second option year this season. I don’t anticipate the Red Sox forcing the issue here at all, but my guess is that they’re hoping they can get him a midseason promotion to Worcester, maybe putting him on the map for a late-season call up if everything goes perfectly, or, more likely, setting him up to be ready for a call up early in 2023.

Honorable Mention: Brandon Walter, LHP, Portland

I mentioned that five of the six honorees so far this season on the pitching side has been from Portland’s staff, but that is admittedly kind of cheating since Walter has been three of them. He’s gotten a mention in each of the first three weeks as he gets out to a rocking start, this week having allowed one run in six innings, striking out seven without issuing a walk. In fact, he has yet to issue a walk all season. There’s perhaps an argument for him to be over Groome, but I leaned towards the strikeouts. I suspect Walter will have more chances for the top spot as the year goes on, too, as he looks ready to jockey for position with Brayan Bello for the title of best pitcher in the organization.

Player of the Week Tracker