The Red Sox needed to clear a spot on their 40-man roster in order to make the signing of Japanese outfielder Masataka Yoshida official on Thursday. They did so by designating infielder Jeter Downs for assignment.
Downs was one of three players — along with Alex Verdugo and Connor Wong — acquired from the Dodgers in the February 2020 trade that sent Mookie Betts and David Price to Los Angeles. The then-21-year-old was viewed as the top prospect in the deal after batting .276/.362/.526 with 24 home runs and 24 stolen bases between High-A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Tulsa in 2019.
Coming into the 2020 season, Downs was regarded by Baseball America as the No. 3 prospect in Boston’s farm system and the No. 86 prospect in all of baseball. He spent the entirety of that summer at the Red Sox’ alternate training site in Pawtucket after the minor-league season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic but then made the jump to Triple-A Worcester last spring.
Downs entered the 2021 campaign ranked by Baseball America as the No. 2 prospect in Boston’s farm system and the No. 71 prospect in the sport. The right-handed hitter saw his stock drop significantly after batting just .191/.272/.333 with 14 home runs, 39 RBIs, and 18 stolen bases over 99 games (405 plate appearances) in his first season with the WooSox. He did, however, post an .880 OPS in the Arizona Fall League and was subsequently added to the Red Sox’ 40-man roster last November in order to receive protection from the Rule 5 Draft.
After a disappointing 2021, Downs fell off Baseball America’s top 100 list completely but was still regarded by the publication as the No. 19 prospect in the Red Sox organization. He once again broke camp with the WooSox this spring but still struggled to find his footing at the plate even while repeating a level.
In 81 games with the WooSox this year, Downs batted .197/.316/.412 with 11 doubles, one triple, 16 homers, 33 runs driven in, 56 runs scored, 18 stolen bases, 38 walks, and 99 strikeouts across 335 trips to the plate. He made his major-league debut in June but hit just .154 (6-for-39) with one home run, four RBIs, four runs scored, one walk, and 21 strikeouts over 14 games before being sent back down to Worcester in late July. On August 18, Downs suffered a left ankle sprain that prematurely ended his season. He returned to action in the Puerto Rican Winter League, but managed a meager .146/.263/.188 slash line in 16 games with the Indios de Mayaguez before being released by the club earlier this month.
Despite the fact that he is still just 24 years old and was once, the Red Sox elected to designate Downs for assignment less than three years after trading for him. The decision to cut bait with Downs carries more weight when the other two players from the Betts deal have not exactly panned out, either. Verdugo, for the most part, has been an average outfielder in each of the last three seasons while Wong has accrued 70 big-league plate appearances over the last two seasons and projects to be a backup catcher as opposed to a starter.
As a former first-round draft pick who has been involved in two blockbuster trades, Downs was thought to have a ceiling that matched or even exceeded that of Verdugo, a former top prospect himself. He has instead shown that he is not yet able to handle major-league pitching, as evidenced by his dismal 51.4 percent strikeout rate and 41.7 percent whiff rate in a limited sample this year.
When speaking with reporters (including MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo) at Fenway Park on Thursday afternoon, Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom acknowledged that although the decision to designate Downs was a tough one, the fact that he was part of the Betts trade did not factor into it.
“I don’t think it changes what the decision is, because ultimately we have our responsibility to every player in this organization to make the right decision by all of them when we’re making decisions for the organization,” Bloom said. “No doubt he was a big part of a really significant trade. That we haven’t gotten him to the level we expected hurts. But at the end of the day, we want to do right by all of our players and he was the right decision, we thought, in this case.”
Downs, who does not turn 25 until next July, has two minor-league options remaining. While he has regressed offensively over the last two years, Downs did make strides defensively and can play both middle infield positions adequately. He also possesses intriguing power and speed, which will no-doubt make him of interest to other teams despite his concerning swing-and-miss rates against experienced pitching. The Red Sox will have the next seven days to either trade, release, or waive Downs, who can be outrighted to Triple-A if he clears waivers.
“We knew, adding Masa, that we’d have a tough decision to make,” said Bloom. “That’s where we are with our 40-man. This is a good thing for the roster but there are only tough decisions from here on out. And this was a tough one. The fact that he was in a position where we considered him and chose him to be designated, I think just speaks to some of the struggles we’ve had getting him on track. I still think there’s a lot of physical ability there but we haven’t been able to unlock it consistently. Certainly know he’s still young and there’s no reason to write him off but he has obviously had some struggles.”
Though Downs did struggle with the Red Sox this season, he did enjoy a few memorable moments. His first career hit led to a walk-off win over the Yankees at Fenway Park on July 9. He then hit his first home run off Gerrit Cole at Yankee Stadium eight days later.
“I’m glad he was able to get to the big leagues with us,” Bloom said. “I was glad he was able to have a moment with us here at Fenway and help us win a big game. That was a lot of fun for a lot of people. But obviously, we haven’t been able to get him to that success as consistently as anybody would have liked, least of all Jeter.”
(Picture of Jeter Downs: Winslow Townson/Getty Images)