SARASOTA, Fla. — Jeter Downs is close friends with Torii Hunter Jr., son of former All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter Sr. The two were drafted a year apart: Hunter, in 2016 and Downs, 2017. They are both navigating their way through the minor league ranks. Hunter hopes he lands in Southern California with the Los Angeles Angels’ big league squad at some point, while Downs now has shifted sight to Boston and is the can’t-miss prospect of the two.
His game caught the eye of the eldest Hunter, who is a mentor to many young players across baseball, including New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks.
“I actually ran into Torii Hunter in my hotel last week,” Downs said. “He told me to make all the mistakes you can now in the minor leagues. Try new things. I’ve taken that to heart. So, I feel really good about that.”
Two games into the spring Downs has made his share of mistakes.
He booted a grounder in Friday’s game against Northeastern. He got his feet tangled going back on a pop-up during Sunday’s 11-5 loss to the Baltimore Orioles. Had it not been for outfielder Marcus Wilson’s impressive sliding grab, the ball would have dropped in for possibly a double. Downs capped his day off going 0 for 3. In his final at-bat, he struck out swinging on a fastball located at the top of the zone. His electric bat speed couldn’t get to it. Still, this is something he’s taking in stride. There’s a progression period for a young player of his caliber. One that he’s embracing.
“It’s a kid’s dream to go out, play and have fun and enjoy it,” Downs said. “Being around all these guys and getting to see them play and stuff like that. It’s a new experience. The trial-and-error of baseball is pretty cool, so you try one thing one day and it might not feel good. Then you try it again in two weeks and it feels great.”
Downs has a quiet yet confident demeanor. He’s still just 21 years old. In a clubhouse full of giants, many of whom have a World Series title, you still see Downs. He exists. His presence doesn’t hide in the shadows. His manager at this moment, Ron Roenicke, is relishing the thought of getting to see him play on a more consistent basis while he’s still in big league camp.
“I like it,” Roenicke said. “I think any time you get somebody from somewhere who your organization has really good things to say about, it’s fun for us to see what they see and see how it plays out with the rest of the guys.
Downs was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds, then traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers only to be dealt again. He isn’t a newbie when it comes to trades, but he’ll forever be linked to the trade of a franchise pillar in Mookie Betts that drew large criticisms from the Sox fanbase. Realistically, Sox fans still yearn for Betts, not Alex Verdugo, Downs, and Connor Wong.
But this is when the advice and acknowledgment from a veteran like Hunter Sr. can pay dividends for a player like Downs.
“He actually mentioned that he’s been watching me because he’s working with the Twins,” an excited Downs said. “In this game, the more you play the better you get and the more you learn.”
Julian McWilliams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @byjulianmack.