Welcome to Over the Monster’s 2023 Season Preview! Between now and Opening Day, we’ll be here to tell you anything and everything* you need to know about the upcoming season. Below is an installment in our Positional Preview Series, in which we do a deep dive on each positional group. Our next stop is center field.
* Well, not everything, but a lot of things. Trust us: you don’t actually want everything, anyway; a little hunger feeds the soul.
The Boston Red Sox had to get better in the outfield, so they signed Masataka Yoshida. Then Trevor Story needed surgery, so they had to do some depth chart shuffling, leaving them with a gaping hole in center field where Enrique Hernández, now the projected starter at short, used to be. So, rather than invest a ton in a long-term option, the Red Sox grabbed veteran Adam Duvall on a one-year deal. Duvall could still very well be a good player, but with a potential superstar in Ceddanne Rafaela waiting in the wings and Hernández just a healthy Story away from wanting his spot back, all Duvall really needs to do his hold things steady.
The Starter – Adam Duvall
There are two ways to take the fact that Duvall is the projected starting center fielder for the Red Sox. Let’s start with the first. It’s the more optimistic one, and who doesn’t like a a bit of optimism this time of year? To start, the Red Sox signed the veteran outfielder to a one-year, $7 million deal. That’s a relatively cheap contract with zero frills and very little risk. If he’s great, awesome, maybe they’ll re-sign him next year. If he’s not, he won’t be a albatross around payroll’s necks beyond 2023.
Taking the economics aside, the positive spin on Duvall from an actually playing baseball perspective is his history of being a slugger in addition to having solid credentials as a fielder. Usually just plugging a big bopper into center field isn’t a great strategy unless they can also field the position. Duvall fits the bill, or at least he has historically. Since 2015, he is 12th among all outfielders in DRS, and just last season, he was in the 88th percentile in outs above average. While the Red Sox already have a stellar defensive center fielder in Hernández, since his services will be required at shortstop at least until Story is healthy or Adalberto Mondesi wrests the job away, Duvall is a more than solid option and that’s before we get to the dingers.
Oh, yes, the dingers. Duvall has a pretty straightforward offensive profile, deriving the majority of his value from launching balls into outer space. In 2021, he amassed 38 long balls, setting a career-high, and even last season, when he played in only 86 games, he slugged 12 bombs and had an ISO well above league average (.188 vs. .152).
So how did a player like this stay a free agent until the Red Sox scooped him up in late January? Well, a few things. First, Duvall turned 34 at the end of last season, putting him on the older side for an everyday center fielder. In addition, he missed most of the back half of the campaign with a left wrist sprain. As if that wasn’t enough, although he has been a 30 home run guy before, he’s only done it three times and just once since 2017. Don’t get it twisted; he’s still been a power hitter, with his ISO often outpacing league average rates by a considerable margin, but missed time and ineffective overall offensive production has been a drain on his overall performance.
Putting it all together, for much of his career, Duvall has oscillated between a solid everyday regular and little more than a replacement level player. He’s about to come off a season that was undoubtably soured by injury, but even before the wrist issue, he still struck out 32.1 percent of the time and was 13 percent below league average offensively.
So, ultimately, Duvall isn’t a slam dunk answer for the Red Sox in center, a position that was largely carried by the surprising Rob Refsnyder and Hernández last season. However, the Red Sox didn’t sign him thinking he’d be Willie Mays. If he can put some balls on Lansdowne and continue holding his own as a fielder, he should keep the spot warm for whatever direction the Red Sox go in 2024.
It helps that the Red Sox have some pretty solid options to back Duvall up. The first and most obvious is Hernández. In a perfect world, Trevor Story would be 100 percent and ready to take over shortstop full time in 2023. Scratch that, in an actually perfect world, the Red Sox would have extended Xander Bogaerts years ago and never let — I’m going to stop myself before I get too off topic.
Story at shortstop would make it easy to put Hernández in center or at second base full time, but with the former Colorado Rockie on the shelf following elbow surgery, Hernández’s skills can be better utilized at short for now. That doesn’t mean he won’t get time in center, though. With Mondesi on the roster, not to mention Christian Arroyo and up-and-comers like David Hamilton, the Red Sox have depth at short, which, in turn, gives them more depth in center.
Hernández has primarily been utilized in center during his time with the Red Sox, logging 158 of his 227 games in Boston at that specific post. While his offense has been up and down, due in no small part to a hip injury last season, the former Dodger has been exceptional in the field. Just last year he was in the 98th percentile in outfielder jump while sitting in the mid 80th percentiles in outs above average and arm strength.
Adding even more depth at the position is Rob Refsnyder, who logged 115 innings in center during his surprising 2022 campaign, during which he rose from minor league deal to become the most valuable outfielder on the roster. Refsnyder will likely get plenty of opportunities to play, as he can fit in at all outfield positions, and he may just be the top backup to Duvall while Hernández covers shortstop.
Minor League Depth
The Red Sox have every genre of depth option at center. There’s the veteran MLB-level players on minor league deals in Raimel Tapia and Greg Allen. There’s also the career minor leaguer in Narciso Crook, although the 27-year-old is still pretty young and got his first taste of MLB action with the Cubs last season. Then there’s the former top prospect who’s fallen out of favor in Jarren Duran. And, finally, there’s the new hot prospect in Ceddanne Rafaela.
Duran is currently projected to be the most utilized of the bunch. In fact, FanGraphs expects him to play center field the third most of any Red Sox player after Duvall and Hernández. He’ll need to capitalize on any and all chances because the Red Sox have to be nearing the end of their patience. They basically did near the end of last season, when he was demoted at the end of August, as Duran struggled at the plate and in the field across 58 games. We still are going on a pretty small sample size with Duran, as he has now logged only 91 games at the MLB level, but he hasn’t provided many glimmers of hope for a turnaround.
On the other side of the prospect coin, Rafaela’s reputation is rising exponentially. The fact that he can play both center field and shortstop should tell you everything you need to know. The 22-year-old still has room to develop, particularly at the plate, but he has a bright future thanks to his speed, slick fielding and improving power.
Neither Tapia nor Allen have the prospect intrigue of Duran and Rafaela, but they have both been MLB contributors over the last five years. Tapia played in 128 games and had 433 plate appearances with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2022, producing a 90 wRC+ and 0.3 fWAR, while Allen managed 134 plate appearances in 46 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates, providing more value on defense than at the plate. Crook has been playing professional baseball since he was 18, but he isn’t a touted prospect and his nine plate appearances with the Cubs last year account for his only MLB experience. All three players are non-roster invitees to spring training, with Tapia having the best shot at making a dent at the MLB level this year.
Center field has one of the most inconsistent projection sets of any position for the Red Sox. Some models expect Duvall to return toward his 2021 Atlanta days, while others think he’ll barely be better than a replacement player. Some project Crook to get a healthy dose of playing time, while most provide a four-player rotation of Duvall, Hernández, Refsnyder and Duran. In addition to these inconsistencies, many of these models were clearly computed with Hernández expected to be the starter. Unless Story returns from injury with miraculous speed, it’s unlikely Hernández is going to play 120 games or more in center. So, here are three projection sets, but please take it all with a grain of salt.
Boston Red Sox 2023 Center Field Projections - ZiPS
Boston Red Sox 2023 Center Field Projections - Steamer
Boston Red Sox 2023 Center Field Projections - ATC
- Cedric Mullins - Baltimore Orioles
- Kevin Kiermaier - Toronto Blue Jays
- Harrison Bader - New York Yankees
- Adam Duvall - Boston Red Sox
- Jose Siri - Tampa Bay Rays
A couple caveats here: First, Aaron Judge played most of his games in center field in 2022 and if he makes his way back, then he’s clearly No. 1 . Second, while Kiermaier is currently projected to start in center field for the Blue Jays, they also have capable guys in George Springer and Daulton Varsho, who will be in the corners. By their powers combined, the Blue Jays have one of the best center fielders in the division.
Mullins had a down year after his breakout in 2021, but he still managed to be worth 3.4 fWAR and accumulate a 113 wRC+ in the second half. I like him to bounce back to All Star production in 2023.
You could make an argument to swap around Bader, Siri and Duvall, but Bader is the only one with a truly elite part of his game (defense), so he gets the No. 3 spot. Siri has a ton of speed and is still early in his career (27 years old), but he’s looked outmatched at the plate in his first two big league seasons. Duvall is the safer pick at No. 4.