Red Sox roster decisions hinge on whether Ceddanne Rafaela is ready to play center field


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FORT MYERS, Fla. — All offseason the Boston Red Sox talked about improving their defense, but two weeks into spring training, they’re still trying to decide whether to carry perhaps the best defensive player in camp.

Ceddanne Rafeala has emerged as a pivot point for the Red Sox’s roster construction. Their best defensive outfield has Rafaela in center field, but the team might be best served having him in Triple A to start the season, continuing his offensive development while freeing at-bats for the abundant outfield alternatives already on the roster.

Jarren Duran, the team’s incumbent center fielder, made his spring training debut on Friday but played left field. Rafaela was in center while another young outfielder, Wilyer Abreu, played right. That may very well be the alignment on Opening Day, but the Red Sox remain undecided.

“There’s going to be some upset guys at the end (of spring training),” manager Alex Cora said. “But they have to understand this is how it goes. If you have to go to (Triple-A) Worcester at the start of the year, you go and put pressure on us to make the next decision. I’m comfortable with it. It’s not the first time we have to make a tough decision.”

Some in the organization have been talking for months about Rafaela as the team’s best solution in center field. The 23-year-old plays “some of the best centerfield defense anywhere in professional baseball,” according to Keith Law. He had a .988 OPS in Worcester last season, but that Triple-A sample was only 48 games, and a big-league promotion in September proved far more challenging (a .666 OPS with 28 strikeouts and only four walks). Plate discipline has always been a weakness for Rafaela, though his glove, speed and surprising power leave a lot to like about him. The question is whether he’s the best fit right now. Back in 2013, they opened with young defensive standout Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field and wound up sending him back to the minors after he hit just .097 in his first 10 starts.

Ceddanne Rafaela steals second base against the Cardinals on Feb. 27. (Megan Briggs / Getty Images)

The Red Sox were credited with minus-12 outs above average in the outfield last year, the worst in the American League. The defensive runs saved metric was slightly more forgiving — minus-two, fifth-worst in the AL — but that still was not a ringing endorsement, and that was before the team traded away Gold Glove finalist Alex Verdugo in December.

Duran is returning from a resurgent 2023 season and had an .828 OPS and 24 stolen bases before a toe injury ended his season in August — which ultimately delayed his game action this spring — but Duran graded minus-five defensive runs saved and zero outs above average in center. His defense was better last season than it had been in the past, but still not elite.

Duran would presumably be better in left field, but the Red Sox traded for two-time Gold Glove winner Tyler O’Neill this offseason, and he’s played nothing but left field this spring. O’Neill could also play right — and outfield coach Kyle Hudson said he might get some time in center this spring — but the Red Sox also like Abreu’s defense and left-handed bat in right field. Right-handed platoon outfielder Rob Refsnyder has experience at all three outfield positions. Returning left fielder Masataka Yoshida, a defensive liability, will likely get most of his time at designated hitter.

The question is what to do with all of them. Carrying all six might be overkill in the outfield (despite Rafaela’s ability to also play the middle infield). Rafaela and Abreu have options and could be sent to Triple A. Refsnyder is a role player, but the team has been in pursuit of reliable right-handed hitters all winter. On Friday, according to people familiar with the deal, the team signed veteran C.J. Cron to a minor-league deal to compete with corner infielder Bobby Dalbec for a bench role, but even that bench role might not be available if the Red Sox carry that many outfielders.

And that decision really comes down to Rafaela.

“We know what he can be,” Hudson said. “He hasn’t done it yet, right? He hasn’t really done it yet at the highest level. But it’s not about one guy. It’s about the group as a whole.”

O’Neill, Abreu, Duran and Refsnyder have played all three outfield positions in the big leagues. That gives the Red Sox considerable flexibility as they consider their many options. Friday’s alignment might have been one of their best defensive setups, but that’s not the only factor in the decision. Rafaela’s skillset is making the decision difficult.

“That’s one of the reasons he’s here,” Cora said. “We believe he can impact the game defensively.”

(Photo of center fielder Ceddanne Rafaela making a catch on Sept. 10, 2023: Bob DeChiara / USA Today)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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