PORTLAND, Maine — Ceddanne Rafaela is nearing the end of a standout season that has vaulted him from relative obscurity — a player ranked in the back half of the Red Sox top 30 but largely unknown nationally — into prominence. Signed out of Curaçao for $10,000 in 2017, he is now a top-100 prospect in all of baseball.
The 21-year-old has hit .298/.346/.548 with 20 homers, 26 steals, and 61 extra-base hits in 107 games between High A Greenville and Double A Portland. His surprising strength in the batter’s box combined with excellent speed and elite instincts has made him an impact offensive player.
Yet Rafaela’s defense — at shortstop and especially in center field — has been a showstopper, and the source of further ambition.
“I just want to keep improving more and more, and try to win a lot of Gold Gloves,” Rafaela beamed.
According to several evaluators throughout the game, that’s no mere idle boast.
“If you went and saw him play for a week, I’d be shocked if you didn’t feel the same way,” said Red Sox farm director Brian Abraham.
A scout for a rival American League team said that his organization already pegged Rafaela as a near-elite outfielder whose skills rival that of all but a few big leaguers. An National League executive said that his organization, based on a combination of statistical data and in-person evaluations, graded Rafaela as “literally off of our scale” in terms of defensive impact.
The Sox have come to similar conclusions.
“You come to a ballgame, you see him play, he passes the eye test like no other. But he passes the [data-driven] computer test as well,” said Red Sox roving outfield instructor Corey Wimberly, noting internal evaluations had placed Rafaela among the top 10 defensive outfielders in all of professional baseball, and as high as No. 2.
“I truly believe this: You put him in the big leagues right now, he wins the Gold Glove as an outfielder,” said Red Sox infield coordinator Darren Fenster. “He’s not there yet as an infielder, but talent-wise and with some more reps and some more polish, he has Gold Glove potential as a shortstop as well. It’s wild the talent that this kid has.”
He’s accumulated a long list of plays this year that left teammates turning to superheroes for the sake of comparison.
Spider-Man? He scaled a wall in Binghamton, N.Y., this year to pull back a homer, literally leaving teammates with their hands on their heads in disbelief.
Ceddanne Rafaela's home run robbing catch in Binghamton has been nominated for @MiLB's Play of the Month for July, presented by @CapitalOne.— Portland Sea Dogs (@PortlandSeaDogs) August 2, 2022
Vote: https://t.co/7mCX4PMFAw pic.twitter.com/y1wAKG32S4
Red Sox reliever Matt Barnes caught a different display of radioactive superpowers. Rafaela — playing shortstop for a night — ranged into left-center and made a sliding, over-the-shoulder, barehanded catch of a popup down the left-field line.
“Incredible,” said Barnes.
Once again Ceddanne Rafaela provides us with the @Evergreen_CU Play of the Week. pic.twitter.com/702fQrmDCM— Portland Sea Dogs (@PortlandSeaDogs) August 2, 2022
At other times, Rafaela has put on a cape. Two weeks ago, he laid out in left-center to snare a gap-bound liner, leaving rehabbing big leaguer Trevor Story with mouth agape.
“That’s as good as I’ve seen, just kind of closing speed and then to finish the catch. He took it right off the ground with a full Superman dive,” said Story. “That kid can play, man. He’s super athletic. There’s something about him. He’s an exciting player. He kind of seems like the whole package.”
Ceddanne Rafaela with a diving catch out in centerfield, what a play! #RedSox • @cezanjr • #DirtyWater— Chris Henrique (@ChrisHenrique) August 25, 2022
Rafaela cites a different play as his best superhero moment of 2022 — one that was not caught on camera. While with Greenville, he raced to the right-center gap in Asheville, N.C., and made a mystical diving catch on the warning track.
“He completely laid out on the warning track and their warning track, it’s different,” said Alex Binelas, Rafaela’s teammate in Greenville and Portland. “It’s like a dust with some little sparkles in it. It’s really weird. So when he dove, he was full Superman through the air, caught it, and all these dust and sparkles came up.”
“That one was crazy,” said Rafaela. “I’m sad they didn’t have that on video.”
Rafaela’s defensive impact is all the more remarkable given that he’s relatively new to center. He’d spent his professional career bouncing around the infield, but entering the 2021 season, the Red Sox committed to encouraging versatility in their minor leaguers at an earlier stage of their development.
In the final week of minor league spring training that year, Fenster — then the outfield coordinator — approached Rafaela about trying the outfield as he prepared for the start of his first full minor league season. Rafaela, who’d made a point of power shagging during batting practice throughout his baseball life, welcomed it.
“Right away, I was happy with that decision because I knew there were gonna be more chances for me to play every day,” said Rafaela.
The Sox had planned on giving him perhaps one game a week in the outfield. Yet by the end of the month, Rafaela had already emerged as the best defensive outfielder in the system. A player who combined excellent jumps with both direct routes and closing speed to make difficult catches look routine, and to turn seemingly unplayable balls into outs.
“Usually the guys that get later jumps have more direct routes to the ball. He’s combined the two,” said Wimberly. “That really makes him an elite outfielder.”
Rafaela’s skills, however, are not limited to center. He can also play in the middle infield — with at least average defense at short and the potential to exceed that — to suggest a Kiké Hernández-like super-utility profile as a reasonable baseline for his big-league future.
“This is my 20th year in the organization. I have never seen the guy that you could put in two premier positions on the diamond and he plays at that elite status. I’ve just never seen anything like it,” said Sea Dogs manager Chad Epperson. “He gets to balls with ease and has a knack to play the infield, always in charge of hops … You hear coaches that you talk to on the other team [say] he’s the best player in the league.”
Only one other Red Sox minor leaguer in recent memory has made the transition from dirt to grass with anything approaching the ease of Rafaela. In May 2014, Mookie Betts relocated from second base to center while in Double A, reached the big leagues by the end of June as a right fielder, and quickly emerged as a Gold Glover.
“Mookie can be [ticked] at me, but this kid runs circles around where [Betts] was [defensively] at this point in time,” said Epperson. “That’s how special this kid is. You have to see it.”
⋅ Infielder Enmanuel Valdez (acquired from the Astros in the Christian Vázquez deal) went on a run-producing binge for Worcester last week, hitting .417/.482/.917 with two homers while driving in 10.
⋅ Catcher Nathan Hickey has four homers in his last seven games with High A Greenville, adding to an impressive performance in his first full pro season (273/.422/.543 with 16 homers).
⋅ After struggling much of the year, righthander Wikelman Gonzalez has been dominant down the stretch, forging a 2.43 ERA with a 30.5 percent strikeout rate over 37 innings in his last eight starts —four with Greenville following a promotion from Salem.
⋅ Lefthander Brandon Walter, who was promoted to Triple A in May but last pitched June 7, has been shut down with a bulging disk in his upper back. He is not expected to require surgery.
⋅ Lefthander Chris Murphy has allowed seven runs in three innings in each of his last two starts with Worcester, suggesting possible fatigue after a career-high 26 starts and 128⅓ innings.
⋅ A back injury prevented 18-year-old outfielder Miguel Bleis — who dazzled with a .301/.353/.543 line in the Florida Complex League — from moving up to Salem. However, he has resumed baseball activities and is expected to take part in the instructional league next month.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.