The Washington Post
Nationals’ Downs, a once-heralded prospect, focuses on what he can control
On Saturday night, Washington Nationals Manager Dave Martinez was in a midgame pinch. His top two center field options — Victor Robles and Derek Hill — were injured. Erick Mejia, who was reassigned to minor league camp last week, hurt his leg in the third inning. So Martinez turned to Jeter Downs.
Martinez had hinted that the move might happen. Downs, a middle infielder by trade, hadn’t played outfield since high school travel ball. He had worked with first base coach Eric Young Jr. on drills there, though Martinez said he probably would play him in left field first.
The results weren’t perfect. Downs broke back on a flyball instead of coming in; the ball dropped for a single. But Martinez, who liked what he saw from Downs in the outfield, doesn’t want him to press. For Downs, this year’s camp is about taking time to learn.
“He’s still got a lot left in his future. We want him to kind of slow the game down a little bit,” Martinez said. “I told him: ‘ You put up some numbers in the minor leagues. You got rushed to the big leagues, and you got traded. Everything happened so quick for you.’ It’s almost a breath of fresh air for him here, and I think he feels that way.”
Downs, 24, is hoping to stick with his fourth organization. He was a top prospect acquired by the Boston Red Sox from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Mookie Betts trade in 2020. That was the second trade of his career. After being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds with the 32nd pick in 2017, he was dealt to the Dodgers with Josiah Gray in 2018.
“When he got traded to Boston, we talked a little bit. When I got traded over here, we talked a little bit as well,” said Gray, who was sent to Washington in the Max Scherzer-trea Turner trade in 2021. “I know he’s rooting for me, and I’m rooting for him.”
Downs wasn’t expecting either move. He remembers being at the airport when he got the call that he was being traded to the Red Sox; he had just shipped all of his belongings to Dodgers camp. Suddenly, he was in a new organization and didn’t know anyone.
“It’s definitely not what you expect in pro ball,” said Downs, who got an X-ray Wednesday after he was hit on the hand with a pitch in Tuesday’s game, the results of which were not immediately known. “Nobody dreams about getting drafted and getting traded a few times. I’m rolling with it, taking it all in. At the end of the day, I believe God has a reason for everything and everything happens for a reason. So some of these experiences are learning experiences to take from and to help in whatever He has planned for me.”
Downs’s first two seasons in the minors were strong; he showed a combination of contact and power that helped him ascend to Class AA with the Dodgers in 2019. But soon Downs was hit with a reality that several other young players in Washington’s clubhouse can relate to: He was a prospect acquired in a high-profile trade and faced pressure to make the trade worth it.
He hit .191 in 99 games with Class AAA Worcester in 2021. Last year, he hit .197 in 81 games but still got called up to the majors. He called Fenway Park “magical” and said he still gets goose bumps thinking about the park.
But Downs hit .154 in 14 games with the Red Sox, then was designated for assignment in December. The Nationals, without anything to lose, claimed him off waivers.
Did the pressure affect him? “Maybe? Maybe not?” Downs said. “I don’t really think about stuff like that. I try not to because it’s not going to do any good for me or any bad for me. I try not to think about stuff that I can’t control and just go from there. Maybe it had an effect, but who knows? We’re here now, and we’re a National.”
The Nationals, then, are tasked with helping him develop into the player many expected him to become. Defensively, Downs hasn’t had trouble splitting time between second base and shortstop, in addition to his brief action in center. But he has to produce at the plate.
Downs felt as if he was fighting himself at the plate at times the past few seasons. He wanted to make every movement in every swing flawless. Now he wants to be “athletic.” He wants to see and react, letting his mind and body work together instead of being disjointed.
“I kind of can be a perfectionist at times with certain things, so I want everything to be a certain way,” Downs said. “But in this game, it’s too hard. . . . Sometimes you just have to be in a good position and be able to make adjustments on the fly.”
This offseason, Downs finished a book about forming and breaking habits and routines. He believes that sticking to his routine will allow him to think less and trust more.
The Nationals, whose matchup against the Marlins was canceled Wednesday because of rain, have a number of young prospects to build around for the future. Downs believes that after all he has been through the past few seasons, he can be part of that picture, too.
“Baseball is a sport that’s always going to test you in some way, shape or form,” he said. “I think this is my test, and I feel like it’s all starting to turn in the right direction. So I just thank God again for the opportunity to be here with a great group of guys. I just want to get going with them.”
Martinez did not have an update on right-hander Cade Cavalli, who was scheduled to undergo an MRI exam Wednesday. Cavalli exited Tuesday’s game after “feeling something behind his throwing elbow,” Martinez said earlier this week. Cavalli, 24, was the team’s first-round pick in the 2020 MLB draft.