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It’s Time To Call Up Ceddanne Rafaela

The Red Sox defense is atrocious, but it doesn’t have to be.

MiLB: JUL 4 International League - Syracuse Mets at Worcester Red Sox Photo by Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

If there’s been one constant with these wildly inconsistent 2023 Boston Red Sox, it’s been awful defense. That’s not exactly where you want your team to be consistent, but here we are. Their 80 errors lead the league, and their -51 outs above average (err, I guess we should say outs below average) are dead last and not even close to the -19 OAA of the second-worst team, the Reds.

And it wasn’t just Kiké Hernandez giving out souvenirs to the fans in the Jim Beam dugout that’s to blame for this, either. Outside of Alex Verdugo and Connor Wong, the Red Sox aren’t only bereft of great defensive players, they’re bereft of merely ok defensive players. Triston Casas’ -9 OAA are the second-worst among all big league first basemen; Rafael Devers’ -6 occupies the same spot with respect to third basemen; Masataka Yoshida’s -6 is the fourth-worst in left; Adam Duvall has somehow accumulated -3 OAA in limited time, which is the third-worst mark amongst all center fielders; and Jarren Duran isn’t much better, as his 0 ranks him just 34th at the position. The Boston Red Sox simply cannot catch the ball, and it continues to cost them games.

Oh well! The trade deadline’s passed and there’s nothing they can do about it, right? Well, not exactly, because here’s the thing: it’s possible that one of the very best defensive baseball players in the entire world is just chilling in Worcester right now, drinking Wormtowns, hanging out in Main Middle, and wondering when he’s going to get a chance in Fenway.

Hmm, seems like there might be a good fit there.

Ceddanne Rafaela is going to be a big league baseball player for a long time. That’s not something you can say with certainty about a lot of AAA players who’ve yet to make their Major League debut, but you can say it about him, because Rafaela is capable of doing thinks like this:

And this:

And this:

And that’s just in the outfield! Because, oh right, he also plays shortstop, where he does things like this:

And this:

I wasn’t kidding when I said he might already be on the best defensive players in the world. He’s that good. And that’s why most scouts say that, even if he never develops into much of a hitter at the Major League level, he’ll find a spot on a roster for years to come. When you can do what he does with a glove, you’ll almost always have a job — just ask Kevin Keirmaier.

But here’s something else about Rafaela: he’s not just some punch-and-judy all-glove/no-hit guy. His world class hand-eye coordination and wiry strength have led to an eye-popping .319/.367/.659 slash line at AAA Worcester, where he just went on an absurd streak of five straight games with a home run. If a guy who plays all-world defense at a premium position can also hit like that, he’s not just a future big leaguer, he’s a future star. There’s just one problem: we don’t know if he actually can hit like that.

There’s an oft-repeated saying in the world of prospect-watchers: don’t scout the stat line. Rafaela is a prime example of this because, for as much as he stuffs the box score, he has an atrocious approach at the plate. Rafaela swings at just about everything, so along with his pop and bat-to-ball skills, he makes a lot of weak contact and strikes out over 20% of the time. That strikeout rate would be perfectly acceptable if he were able to maintain a batting average around .300 and an OBP around .350, as he is now. But most scouts think he’ll be severely exposed by big league pitchers, who simply won’t give him anything to hit and will let him get himself out.

Given the sky-high potential he carries if he can improve his approach, the minor league coaching staff has been working relentlessly on it for the past few seasons. At certain points, they’ve resorted to measures as drastic as only allowing him to take one single swing in an entire at-bat. It hasn’t worked. Rafaela’s 4.7% walk rate this year is right in line with where it’s been his entire career. A 4.7% walk rate would be the 8th-worst in all of baseball this year. And while it’s theoretically possible to be an effective offensive player who walks as rarely as that (Bo Bichette and Luis Robert are two notable names that come to mind) it’s really, really hard.

But if, as is looking increasingly possible, he’s simply never going to improve his approach (or, at least, if it’s going to be a very long, multi-year process) then there really isn’t any reason to keep him down in the minors any longer. He’s dominating down there; bring him up and see what he can do.

The big league team could certainly use him, and there is space for him to get into the lineup quite regularly. Justin Turner, the team’s primary DH, is suffering from a bruised heel that may limit his effectiveness and require him to miss time down the stretch. Casas and Yoshida are both on the verge of playing more games than they ever have in their careers and could benefit from spending less time in the field. A regular rotation of these three hitters in the DH spot would give Rafaela a chance to start in center field three-to-four times a week, while pushing Duran to a less demanding position. A left-to-right outfield of Duran, Rafaela, and Verdugo might be one of the very best defensive outfields in the game, turning what has been a major weakness into a source of strength.

Chaim Bloom will have to make a major decision about the outfield this offseason. There really isn’t room for each of Duran, Rafaela, and Verdugo on the 2024 team if Yoshida is the everyday left fielder, and it makes all the sense in the world to trade one of them for pitching help. But deciding which of them should go isn’t going to be easy. Call up Ceddanne now and see if he can make the decision for you, while improving the big league team in the process.