By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
It’s time to get to know the players the Red Sox got in return for Mookie Betts, Part II. The trade was finalized (finally) Sunday night, with the new iteration seeing Twins fireballer Brusdar Graterol replaced by a pair of Dodgers prospects in shortstop Jeter Downs and catcher Connor Wong. Alex Verdugo remains a part of the deal, you can read his scouting report/player breakdown on my first version of this post.
As for the new guys, let’s start with Downs, who was the Dodgers fifth-ranked prospect according to MLB.com at the time of the trade. Obligatory fun-facts about Downs; he’s named after Derek Jeter, and his brother Jerry Downs has been in the Red Sox system since being drafted in 2015. There, now that that’s out of the way, time for the baseball.
Drafted by the Reds in 2017, Downs was traded to LA a year later as the highlight of a package that sent Yasiel Puig to Cincinnati. He spent most of 2019 with the Dodgers High-A affiliate Rancho Cucamonga, where he hit .269 with 19 home runs in 107 games. The 21-year-old surged late in the year after a promotion to Class-AA Tulsa, where he hit .333 in 12 games to end the season.
While most top 100 prospects have an elite skill that sets them apart (eg. Graterol’s velocity, Verdugo’s plate approach), Downs is a unique exception in that all of his tools project to be average-to-above-average across the board. He can do a little bit of everything, but nothing about his game really stands out.
He has good bat speed and a lofty swing, which results in a lot of fly balls to left field. In that sense, he’s a perfect fit for the Red Sox as he’ll receive plenty of help from the Green Monster once he gets to Fenway. He’ll need to increase his rate of line drives, but when he does hit them he’s able to spread the ball to both outfield gaps, which again will play very well at the Friendly Confines.
Defensively, Downs will likely have to move from shortstop to second base before he gets to the majors given his range and arm strength. While he doesn’t project to be a Gold Glove winner, he shouldn’t be a liability in the field either. Again, average.
Now, that word ‘average’ can have a negative connotation in sports especially when it comes to player evaluation. That’s not the case here. Many players have had decade long careers in baseball because they’re able to do so much across the board. However, while Downs is a well-rounded player who should have a long MLB career, he doesn’t exactly scream ‘superstar’ at the moment, which is disappointing when you put into context he’s the top prospect dealt for a guy two years removed from winning an MVP. Granted, Mookie Betts himself didn’t have a ‘superstar’ scouting report when he was at Downs stage of development, but no Red Sox fan is going to be comfortable with the thought of trading Mookie Betts for a guy who currently projects to have the career of Neil Walker or Brian Dozier.
In Connor Wong, the Red Sox are getting a unique player profile. The 100th overall pick in the 2017 Draft, Wong was a shortstop when he arrived at University of Houston as a freshman. Between three years at UH and two seasons in the Cape Cod Baseball League (where he was an All-Star for Bourne Braves in 2016), Wong was moved around to second base, third base, and the outfield before finally becoming a catcher full-time for his final year in college.
Because Wong started catching later in his development, he doesn’t have the typical makeup you’d expect to find at the position. Speed is one of his defining tools and he’s adapt at stopping balls behind the plate, while his arm is still a work in progress. With experience playing a wide range of positions in college and having some time at second and third base over the last two years in the minor leagues, his path to the majors could end up being as a true utility player.
Offensively, Wong is still working on developing a consistent swing. He hit .281 with 24 home runs in 111 games last year between Class-A+ and Class-AA, but struck out in over 30 percent of his at bats. That number has to come down significantly, it’s nearly 10 points above the MLB average. Making more contact is the key to a major league career for Wong, who hit .425 on balls in play last season.
The tricky thing with Wong is that he’s already 23 years old, and has just 40 games of Class-AA ball under his belt. How the Red Sox, who are severely lacking at organizational catcher depth, handle is development going forward will be key. If he’s rushed and the bat doesn’t fully develop, there’s questions about whether he adds enough defensively to stick in the major leagues. However, if he can cut down on his strikeouts while maintaining his power, he could end up a Brock Holt-type of player who can play every position on the diamond (including catcher) and hit one-through-nine in the lineup.
The reality of both Downs’ and Wong’s careers going forward is they will be forever compared to and judged by what kind of success Brusdar Graterol has with the Dodgers. After all, that’s essentially the compromise Boston and LA reached to allow this deal to happen. Did the Red Sox make the right choice going with two lesser prospects over the nearly-MLB ready Graterol and his bad throwing arm? Are they going to regret not receiving a pitcher in the trade, despite an organizational shortage of youth at the position? In the end, the trade within the Mookie Betts trade (Downs and Wong for Graterol) may end up being more fascinating to follow that the overarching trade itself.
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Hate mail? Let him hear it on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at [email protected]