HomeTrending MLB NewsRed Sox Extend Defensive Phenom Ceddanne Rafaela

Red Sox Extend Defensive Phenom Ceddanne Rafaela

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Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

A month after signing starting pitcher Brayan Bello to a six-year extension, the Boston Red Sox are at it again, this time extending rookie center fielder Ceddanne Rafaela on an eight-year deal worth $50 million. If Rafaela sticks in the majors long enough this season to earn a year of service time, this extension will prolong his free agent eligibility for two years; either way, he’ll be paid a guaranteed salary through the 2031 season.

How you feel about Rafaela comes down to just what you think about his defense. Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin rated Rafaela as the only prospect on THE BOARD last year with a 70 present value for defense and the only one with a future value of 80. They were hardly alone in their praise for his glove, either, as other outlets such as Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline also gave complimentary reviews to his leathercraft.

While prospect writers have occasionally missed on the eventual defensive performance of prospects – Gregory Polanco comes to mind – Rafaela certainly hasn’t shown anything in his limited time in the majors that refutes these views. Measuring minor league defense, as opposed to viewing it, is fraught with obvious peril, but the defensive estimates that ZiPS uses for minor leaguers also love his glove. ZiPS uses a Total Zone-esque measure from Gameday hit locations, similar to Sean Smith’s methodology from nearly 15 years ago. Yes, we’d prefer to have something like OAA or DRS or even UZR for minor leaguers publicly available, but we don’t, so we have to generally be more conservative about conclusions drawn from the data. But for what it’s worth, these estimates, which I call zDEF, had Rafaela as an elite defensive center fielder in the minors in 2023.

Incidentally, zDEF had Rafaela at +3 as a shortstop total for his minor league career, so if the circumstances warranted it, it wouldn’t necessarily be the craziest thing to see him follow in the footsteps of another former Red Sox prospect, Mookie Betts, and move back to shortstop at some point, though that certainly is not why Boston signed Rafaela long term.

Let’s run the eight-year ZiPS for Rafaela.

ZiPS Projection – Ceddanne Rafaela

YearBAOBPSLGABRH2B3BHRRBIBBSOSBOPS+DRWAR
2024.258.299.424517781342891377241342010182.2
2025.254.296.41352074132266156325133189782.2
2026.258.300.423527771362761665261281810182.4
2027.258.304.424528791362751767281241710282.5
2028.258.306.425527801362751767301201610382.6
2029.258.307.423523801352741766311171410272.5
2030.256.306.416515781322641664311141310072.3
2031.256.306.418500751282541662301121210172.3

All told, ZiPS would happily offer him an eight-year, $67 million — $17 million more than what the Red Sox gave him.

One thing to take into consideration: So long as Rafaela’s glove is excellent, he doesn’t need to take a big offensive step forward to be worth his contract. ZiPS has Rafaela hitting for a skosh more power, enough to get his OPS+ and wRC+ into the 100 range during his peak years, but not sufficient to make him a superstar. As a result, his projections keep him in the solidly above-average territory – he’ll likely have an All-Star appearance or two during an up year – but comfortably below star status. These offensive numbers make him slightly better offensively than the inevitable comp given for him, Jackie Bradley Jr., who put up a 93 OPS+ over parts of eight seasons in Boston and was a few runs better defensively than Rafaela’s projections. Suffice it to say, if ZiPS’s natural conservatism with minor league defensive numbers ends up lowballing Rafaela, he’d be a steal at this price and put up WAR numbers in the range of Kevin Kiermaier’s best years.

As an offensive player, Rafaela remains a work in progress. In nine games this season entering Tuesday, he’s hitting .233/.286/.400 with two triples and an 85 wRC+. He’s actually gotten better at making contact, going from a 69% contact rate at Triple-A last year to 73% in the majors so far. Admittedly, this improvement has come in a small sample — he’s made just 124 big league plate appearances combined between his 2023 late-season debut (72.1% contact in 89 PA) and this year (76.3% in his 35 PA) — but it is still encouraging.

That said, he remains far too aggressive at the plate, especially when you consider his specific profile as a hitter. Unlike his teammate Rafael Devers, who also swings at a pretty high rate of pitches out of the zone, Rafaela doesn’t hit the ball particularly hard; Devers has power to spare, so even though he doesn’t make as much hard contact on pitches out of the zone — his average exit velocity drops to 85.5 mph, down from 94.9 mph on in-zone pitches — he can still do damage. Rafaela doesn’t have that luxury. Instead, he is a speedster (ranking 28th in sprint speed this season among 202 qualified players) who plays his home games at Fenway Park, one of baseball’s best parks for batting average. He should be incentivized to have a more contact-oriented game than most other batters. His contact skills appear to be improving, but he won’t get the most out of his game if he keeps chasing pitches that’s he unlikely to hit.

The Betts trade and the departure of Xander Bogaerts are still, rightfully, pain points for Boston fans. But since then, the Red Sox seem to be making a better effort to retain the players they develop, first with the Devers extension in January 2023 and now with Bello and Rafaela. Ultimately, winning is the only thing that will make things better in Boston. Keeping Rafaela in town should be an important step toward that.

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