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Nationals claim Jeter Downs, a former top prospect with an uncertain future

Jeter Downs was Boston's No. 19 prospect, according to Baseball America. (Brian Fluharty/Getty Images)
4 min

After the Washington Nationals claimed infielder Jeter Downs on Thursday, adding a player who once headlined major trades, a reasonable reaction was: Why not?

There are a few counters to that question — because there are valid reasons Downs, 24, was recently designated for assignment by the Boston Red Sox, who acquired him as part of the package for star outfielder Mookie Betts. In the past two seasons, across 180 plate appearances with Class AAA Worcester, Downs posted a .193 batting average, a .292 on-base percentage and a .368 slugging percentage. In an abbreviated shot in the majors last year, he collected six hits in 41 trips to the batter’s box. He is, by and large, a former top prospect who swung his way out of Boston’s plans, leading them to dump him for the mundane purpose of clearing a spot on the 40-man roster.

But again, as far as Washington is concerned: Why not?

Why not take a flier on Downs, who once flashed significant power and potential while playing in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ system? Why not try to get him on track, even if the Nationals’ player development record suggests they aren’t primed to? Why not hope Downs’s fourth franchise in his seven pro years will provide the change of scenery he needs?

What do the Nationals — last-place finishers in three consecutive seasons, still set on adding on the margins instead of really spending in free agency — have to lose?

What the Nationals have done (and can’t do) to improve their offense

To make room on their 40-man roster, the Nationals designated reliever Reed Garrett for assignment. After losing 107 games in 2022, they maintained the top waiver spot, meaning they had the first crack at Downs. Earlier this offseason, they used that same position to snag right-handed pitcher A.J. Alexy from the Texas Rangers. If they want to dip into waivers some more, perhaps Lucas Luetge, the New York Yankees lefty reliever with a high strikeout rate, is worth a hard look.

The waiver wire previously brought reliever Hunter Harvey and outfielder Alex Call into the Nationals’ immediate plans. It has also netted them Mike Ford, Josh Palacios, Patrick Murphy, Lucius Fox and Francisco Perez, who were all acquired in the past 16 months and are either off the 40-man roster or out of the organization entirely.

Waiver claims are low-risk, low-cost bets who were available because their previous teams — often with heaps of firsthand experience — were comfortable losing them for nothing. That’s worth remembering whenever the next club takes a shot. Downs, born in Colombia, then drafted in the first round out of a Miami high school in 2017, saw his strikeout rates surge in the upper levels of the minors. Defensively, he seems to be a far better fit at second base than shortstop.

His stock has never been lower, so the Nationals, owners of their own low stock, pounced. Baseball America had Downs ranked as Boston’s 19th-best prospect.

The upside for Washington is that Downs is still young and has two minor league options remaining, meaning that for now, he could swing between the majors and Class AAA without going on waivers again. And since the Nationals have next to no middle infield depth near the majors, Downs fits logically behind shortstop CJ Abrams, second baseman Luis García and third basemen Jeimer Candelario and Carter Kieboom. Whether Downs becomes an actual part of the Nationals’ future can be sorted in the years ahead.

Four Decembers ago, the Cincinnati Reds traded Downs, Homer Bailey and a righty named Josiah Gray to the Dodgers for Kyle Farmer, Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Yasiel Puig. Fourteen months later, Downs, Alex Verdugo and Connor Wong were sent to the Red Sox for Betts and David Price. Thursday’s transaction was far less splashy, and there’s a reason for that, too.