Downs adds needed infield depth with potential for high upside

The Nationals’ latest waiver claim was noteworthy in that it was a well known name that was surprisingly available.

Jeter Downs, whom the Nats claimed on outright waivers from the Red Sox yesterday, is known for being a former top shortstop prospect and being included in two major trades since the Reds made him the No. 32 overall pick in the 2017 draft.

He was grouped with Homer Bailey and Josiah Gray – the latter now his Nationals teammate – in a Dec. 21, 2018 trade to the Dodgers for Kyle Farmer, Matt Kemp, Yasiel Puig and Alex Wood. Then on Feb. 10, 2020, he was famously included in the package with Alex Verdugo and Connor Wong that went to the Red Sox for Mookie Betts and David Price.

A central piece in two major trades and a highly rated prospect before turning 22 years old, Downs was, surprisingly, exposed to waivers when the Red Sox designated him for assignment last week after signing outfielder Masataka Yoshida. But of course, there’s a reason for that. His struggles in the Red Sox system and during his brief stint in the majors forced Boston to give up on the now 24-year-old.

Now, almost four years to the day since his trade to Los Angeles, Downs joins a Nationals organization where he is reunited with fellow former Dodgers prospects Gray and Keibert Ruiz. And he brings much-needed infield depth, whether he’s on the major league roster or in the minor league system.

As the Dodgers’ eighth-ranked prospect in 2019, according to MLB Pipeline, Downs joined Gray (No. 18) and Ruiz (No. 2) in Los Angeles’ top 30 prospect list. (Gerardo Carrillo, who was just designated for assignment by the Nats when they re-signed Erasmo Ramirez this week, was No. 19.)

Downs has played primarily shortstop throughout his professional career, but he also has experience playing second base (where he is probably now best suited) and third base. With him coming to Washington, the Nationals now have three of MLB Pipeline’s top 10 shortstop prospects of 2020 on their roster, joining CJ Abrams and Carter Kieboom.

Two years ago, MLB Pipeline ranked Downs as the No. 8 shortstop prospect, behind Abrams at No. 6 and Kieboom at No. 5. Last year, Downs was the No. 8 shortstop while Abrams moved up to No. 3 and Kieboom graduated.

While Abrams is expected to be the everyday shortstop, Luis García the everyday second baseman and Jeimer Candelario the everyday third baseman, Downs will likely be competing with Kieboom, who is returning from Tommy John surgery, and Ildemaro Vargas for a backup role in spring training. But even if he doesn’t make the major league roster, his potential for a high upside at a low cost will add depth to the upper levels of the Nats’ minor league system.

Downs enters the Nats farm as their No. 29 prospect, per MLB Pipeline. His scouting report includes: "Baserunning instincts that help make him a 20-20 threat. His high baseball IQ is evident in the field as well, where he has good hands and solid arm strength."

Of the five infield prospects listed in the Nats’ top 30, only Downs has experience above Single-A. Shortstops Brady House (No. 5) and Armando Cruz (No. 11), and third basemen Trey Lipscomb (No. 18) and Sammy Infante (No. 30) have only reached Single-A Fredericksburg. The earliest they’re projected to reach the majors is 2024.

If Downs starts the season in the minor leagues, the lowest he’ll begin is Double-A Harrisburg, if not Triple-A Rochester. Harrisburg is likely to have Darren Baker and Jackson Cluff as its middle infielders. Rochester will likely have recent minor league signees Erick Mejia and Leonel Valera competing with Lucius Fox, who just cleared waivers and was outrighted to the Red Wings after being designated for assignment when the Nats claimed right-hander A.J. Alexy off waivers from the Rangers last week.

Wherever Downs lands on the farm, he’s likely to be a starter.

And consider Downs may have been a victim of being a rushed project when he entered the Red Sox system. After missing the 2020 season due to the pandemic, he started at Triple-A Worcester two years removed from playing just 12 games at Double-A on the Dodgers farm.

In 180 games over two seasons at Worcester, Downs slashed just .193/.292/.368 for a .661 OPS. He did flash some power, however, slugging 30 home runs with 20 doubles, one triple and 72 RBIs. He also stole 36 bases in 43 attempts.

But back in 2019 with the Dodgers, he was a .269 hitter with an .862 OPS, 33 doubles, four triples, 19 homers, 75 RBIs and 23 stolen bases in 107 games with High-A Rancho Cucamonga. When he was promoted to Double-A Tulsa, he hit .333 with a 1.116 OPS, two doubles, five homers, 11 RBIs, a stolen base and six walks to 10 strikeouts.

Many minor leaguers had their developments stunted by the cancellation of the 2020 season. Downs could be included in that group and perhaps wasn’t developed properly in the Red Sox organization.

Downs has two more years' worth of minor league options, providing roster flexibility between the majors and farm system. He’s also under team control for the next six seasons.

A waiver claim by nature is a low-risk, high-reward move. The Nationals don’t need Downs to be their shortstop or second baseman of the future.

But if they play their developmental cards right and Downs reverts back to the highly rated prospect that was sought after in trades, he could become the player he was projected to be all along and a major asset to this rebuilding franchise.

Looking back at the Josh Bell trade
Nats claim infielder Jeter Downs from Red Sox

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