Downs learning on the fly in center field

March 25th, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It had been so long since had played the outfield, the infielder gave pause when thinking back. 

“In high school,” Downs said, quickly adding, “No, not even high school, probably travel ball.” 

Ten years after his teenage days in center field, Downs has been tasked with expanding his defense to that position during Spring Training with the Nationals.

“You definitely have to work at it again,” Downs, 24, said Friday before the Nationals’ 7-1 loss to the Cardinals. “They hit the ball a lot harder; the fields are a lot bigger. It’s been fun.” 

Downs has played second base, third base and shortstop at the pro level -- the majority at shortstop in the Minor Leagues (2,991 2/3 innings), then a balance of second (56 innings) and third (32 innings) in the Majors with the Red Sox.

The Nationals covet defensive versatility, which made Downs a fit to claim off waivers after he was designated for assignment by Boston on Dec. 15. When the Nats began seeing Downs in camp, they recognized his potential to add “center fielder” to his resume, in case a need for an extra outfielder presents itself.

“Their first step is key,” manager Dave Martinez said of infielders who also play outfield. “And Jeter -- even in the infield -- he’s pretty quick, he’s got that mentality to go get the ball.”

Downs has made three appearances in center field. He has been working with Nationals first-base coach Eric Young Jr., who played 10 seasons in the Majors as an outfielder, to get acclimated. He has noticed numerous differences compared to the infield. 

“In both positions, you have to be alert,” Downs said. “But I would say more so in the outfield, because I feel like you can get caught sleeping out there. You might not get a ball for more than three or four innings, and then out of nowhere, there’s a shot hit in the gap and you’ve got to go get it. The first step out there is so important -- that can be the difference between catching the ball and not catching it. I feel like that's one of the big focuses of mine. 

“Another thing I realized is running after fly balls … everything is such short steps and quick [in the infield]. When I would track balls in [outfield] BP, I felt like sometimes I wasn't using my arms to run just because I'm so used to running after a ground ball. That’s another thing I had to tell myself: 'You’ve got to pump your arms so you can move faster.' 

“The way the ball is hit … I could run at the same ball the same way hit from a lefty and a righty, and one ball flies 30 more feet over my head. … I've been learning on the fly. I’m open to it all.”

With a mentality to help the team in any way needed, Downs -- a former Red Sox top prospect -- is contending for one of the final Opening Day roster spots. He missed game action after being hit by pitches in both hands a week apart, and he returned to the lineup Friday. 

“I just want to see more reps, I want to see him swing the bat a little bit,” Martinez said. “We worked on some stuff with him over the spring. … Primarily, we’re looking at him as a middle-infielder-type guy, and on occasion, we’ll put him in the outfield. The whole thing is getting him consistent with his game right now.”

As the days of camp wind down, Jeter is not paying attention to the calendar or looking ahead to Opening Day on Thursday. He is comfortable with the work he has demonstrated to this point, and he is locked in on staying present in the moment. His focus is “taking it one step at a time, being where my feet are,” whether that is in the infield or learning a new position. 

“I feel like I’m putting in the right work in every aspect of my game, so it eventually will show up down the road,” Downs said. “Whenever it’s time, I feel like everything happens for a reason.”