While the Red Sox continue to explore their options at second base this offseason, one thing is apparent: Don’t expect top prospect Jeter Downs to fill that gap next year, at least not right away.
This is the case because according to WEEI’s Rob Bradford, the Red Sox would like to see the 22-year-old infielder gain more experience at second base at the minor-league level.
“The organizational perception is that [Downs] needs to experience the ups and downs of a semi-normal Triple-A season at this new position,” Bradford wrote over the weekend.
One of the three players (two prospects) Boston got in return from the Dodgers in the blockbuster Mookie Betts trade back in February, Downs has accrued significant playing time as a middle infielder in the minors, but little of that playing time as come at second.
Since being selected by the Reds with the 32nd overall pick in the 2017 amateur draft out of Monsignor Pace High School (Fla.), the Colombia native has played 195 games (1,672 2/3 innings) at shortstop and just 84 games (698 1/3 innings) at second, with just one of those 84 coming above the High-A level in 2019.
FanGraphs does not get too in-depth with defensive metrics for minor-leaguers, but Downs recorded one error and helped turn seven double plays while patrolling second base for High-A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa last year.
This year, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic prevented the minor-league season from taking place, so coveted prospects such as Downs were limited to working out at their club’s respective training sites, which in Downs’ case was in Pawtucket.
There, as noted by SoxProspects.com, the young infielder primarily focused on improving his defense with coach Bruce Crabbe.
“Crabby’s amazing,” Downs said via Zoom back in August. “Almost everyday now we go out there and we get a little work in with a couple other guys as well. It’s a good learning curve, everybody does extra hitting, so I felt like I wanted to do that same thing with my defense. As much as I hit, I also want to do the same amount of defense. I want to be elite at both sides of the ball, so that’s where I’m trying to get it to.”
As it turns out, Downs did put in the work at the alternate site to improve his defensive capabilities at both middle infield positions. At least that’s what Worcester Red Sox manager Billy McMillon said when speaking with reporters in October.
“He made tremendous strides defensively,” McMillon said of Downs. “There are some things he needs to work on, like his makeup and his confidence and things like that. I think those issues affected how he did offensively. As far as Jeter, I see tremendous upside. His track record of offensive performance indicates that at 7:05, when the lights are on, he shows up at the plate. I’m hopeful his track record offensively meshes well with the strides he made defensively. If that happens, I think you’ve got a pretty good player. I don’t want to give a comp or anything, but I think he would more than hold his own based on what he did defensively and how much better and more consistent he got.
“I think he would be a better second baseman longterm, but I do believe he could play shortstop,” added McMillon. “He made some plays that were just unbelievable at shortstop. I personally would see him a better fit at second base if we were talking about 162 games. I think his athleticism, his skills, would be a little better at second base. But he’s still young. I don’t want it to seem like he can’t play shortstop. I think he could do a fine job over there. In my eyes, I see second base when I see him.”
Depending on how the rest of the offseason pans out, Downs will presumably get the opportunity to play second base on an everyday basis with Triple-A Worcester in 2021.
There, as Bradford alluded to, the Red Sox will obviously be keeping a close eye on the right-handed hitter as he prepares to make the jump to the majors — or at least Boston’s 40-man roster — in the months leading up to him being eligible for the 2021 Rule 5 Draft.
In the meantime, The Boston Globe’s Alex Speier wrote earlier this month that while the plan is for Downs to continue to develop at Triple-A, the Sox could pursue free-agent second base options, like Kike Hernandez or Kolten Wong, who would sign one or two-year deals in order to “serve as a bridge to Downs.”
Of course, as Speier points out, it’s not out of the question that chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom and Co. could use Downs as a trade chip in order to acquire a bigger piece from another club.
That possibility likely depends on how the club views Downs, as well as its other second base candidates such as Jonathan Arauz, Christian Arroyo, and Michael Chavis, internally.