LOS ANGELES — Ceddanne Rafaela took a plane to Los Angeles, but it might have been more appropriate for the 22-year-old to travel to the All-Star Futures Game — a showcase for the sport’s best prospects — via jetpack.
Rafaela’s emergence from relative obscurity to elite prospect is the steepest ascent by a Red Sox since Mookie Betts’ meteoric prospect rise in 2013. Rafaela, who entered this year with a career .265/.299/.361 line and 19 homers in 200 professional games, arrived at the Futures Game with a .312/.354/.583 line, 16 homers, and 46 extra-base hits in 74 games this year.
His prodigious offense has been accompanied by sensational defense, including multiple instances where Rafaela has inspired longtime evaluators to wonder if he’d made the best defensive play they’d ever seen. Rafaela has spent most of the season playing center, but has also showed major league ability at both middle infield spots. On top of all that, he’s 19 for 21 in stolen base attempts, producing a dynamic season that made him a clear choice for Dodger Stadium.
“I think in my life the best day was the day that they told me I’m coming here,” said Rafaela, who went 0 for 2 with a pair of strikeouts. “It was a dream come true.”
How to explain the emergence of a player who five years ago signed for just $10,000 out of Curaçao?
In 2020, the COVID-19 shutdown coincided with the news that Rafaela and his girlfriend, Melanie, were going to have a child. As Rafaela pondered how to approach his preparation during the pandemic, his forthcoming fatherhood — and then the birth of his son, Aiden, in December 2020 — played a huge role in setting a course.
“I had a lot of time to think and to process that I’m going to be a dad,” said Rafaela. “I had to think, ‘I’m going to be a dad. Your life has changed in a good way. So just be the best version of me that I can be so he can look up to me in the future.’ ”
While working out on his own, Rafaela added considerable strength to his wiry strong frame — he’s up to 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds from the lithe 5-8 and 130 he was when he signed. That gave him a chance to drive the ball with far greater consistency.
Then, after a slow start to the 2021 season with High A Salem, he worked with hitting coach Nelson Paulino to raise his hands and get a cleaner path to the ball. The result has been a hail of gap-to-gap liners to and over the fence.
“Guys that skinny shouldn’t be hitting the ball that hard,” said one evaluator, whose sentiments were echoed by several others. “The power is something that, nobody could have predicted this, but it’s legit all-fields power.”
After one homer in the first two months of last season, Rafaela hit nine the last three months of 2021. The power surge has continued this season with High A Greenville and, most recently, Double A Portland.
“[Opponents] still doubt. They still think, ‘He’s skinny. He can’t hit the ball hard,’ ” said Rafaela. “But when they see the numbers or they see me play, they change their mind.”
Indeed, opposing teams see a player who is coming into his own.
“We were all joking around, saying he looks like Mookie Betts in the box,” said Giants pitcher Kyle Harrison, who faced Rafaela recently in Double A. “And seeing some of the plays he made in the outfield, he can do it all.”
Rafaela’s elite defense, versatility, and speed all but ensure a big league future. Those tools, in tandem with surprising strength, give him a good chance to at least be a valuable super-utility player in the mold of Kiké Hernández. And if Rafaela — a free swinger who could be vulnerable to high strikeout rates — can tone down his aggressiveness even slightly, he has a chance to be an everyday big-league center fielder.
“He’s very toolsy. He pretty much has it all. He can hit, hit for power, he can throw, he can run,” said Red Sox outfielder coordinator Corey Wimberly. “It’s hard to project guys, but I think he’s gonna be pretty good, man. I think he’s gonna be better than what people think. I think he’s really gonna be a superstar player. I really believe that.”
Rafaela, who recently cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list at No. 84, is determined to validate such impressions. The opportunity to play in Dodger Stadium on Saturday only added to his sense of purpose.
“It was huge,” Rafaela said of the Futures Game. “It motivated me even more to work harder to keep playing on these fields.”