John Tomase

Electrifying Ceddanne Rafaela could bring badly needed excitement to Red Sox

Rafaela has elite defensive talent, but can he hit well enough to justify a spot in Boston?

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FORT MYERS, Fla. – When you get right down to it, how many Red Sox players possess an elite trait?

There's Rafael Devers's power, Brayan Bello's changeup, Trevor Story's instincts at short. That might be it among experienced players on the current roster, which makes Ceddanne Rafaela's bid to win the starting center field job so fascinating.

Rafaela didn't get much of a chance to show it in his 28-game cameo last September, but the youngster is a legitimate Gold Glove candidate if he can ever become a full-time starter. Scouts rave about his range, his arm, his daring. He was a human highlight film in the minor leagues, and there's no reason to believe he can't help remake one of the club's biggest weaknesses this season, if he can only hit enough to justify his presence in the lineup.

"At the end of the day, we can't hide the situation with Rafaela," said manager Alex Cora. "If he's the guy, then we'll have to make decisions in the corner and then roster-wise. We've just got to be patient, understanding that offensively, there's still a few things he needs to do to become a big leaguer, but at the same time, he does a lot of things on the other areas that can impact a roster on a daily basis, versatility included.

"For me, for everyone here, we understand the center field thing is real and he can impact that, but at the same time, understanding that if you need something else at one point during the season, you can move him to second, you can move him to short, he can help us in other areas. But I think everything starts (in center)."

Alex Cora made it clear he'd feel good about starting the rookie at CF if needed

If Rafaela is the key to the roster, he seems to be the last one to know it, which is perhaps by design. He was unaware of Cora's comments, and sounded content keeping it that way.

"He wants me to just keep being me," he said. "He's not putting any pressure on me. I have a good relationship with him. He's one of the best coaches I have. He's just telling me to be myself, be the player you are, and keep working hard.

"Last year I had the same mentality to fight for a spot. It didn't happen, so I come into this spring with the same mentality," Rafaela added. "I didn't really see what Alex said, but that's good. I'm just going to keep working hard, keep being a good teammate, keep going out every day and doing my best, and if that's going to take me to be the starting center fielder, that would be really fun."

The Red Sox find themselves in a strange situation with the outfield. They have no shortage of candidates for the three spots, but each is flawed.

Left fielder Masataka Yoshida profiles more as an everyday DH because of his mediocre defense, exciting young speedster Jarren Duran still must prove he can hold up for a full year, newcomer Tyler O'Neill should probably only face lefties, we're extrapolating to a dangerous degree based on just 85 promising plate appearances for Wilyer Abreu, and Rob Refsnyder is a pinch hitter/reserve.

There's exactly one elite tool in that group, and it's Rafaela's glove. The Red Sox badly need an upgrade after playing some atrocious outfield defense last year, and that was before they traded right fielder Alex Verdugo, their only plus defender, to the Yankees.

Rafaela has the potential to turn a weakness into a strength, especially if he's flanked by O'Neill, a two-time Gold Glover with the Cardinals, and the speedy Duran.

It will all come down to his bat, particularly the ability to be selective. Rafaela hit .241 in the big leagues, but walked just four times with 28 strikeouts. The Red Sox can carry his glove if he hits a little, but a .281 on base percentage won't cut it and Rafaela knows it.

"I've learned a lot from the hitting staff about how to go into an AB," he said. "September helped me a lot last year. Almost every rep, even when I'm in BP or facing a hitting machine, I'm trying to hit the best pitches I can. Right now I feel pretty good and pretty confident going into the spring. . . . Be patient. Get your best pitch and do damage on it."

Rafaela grew up in Curacao, where he worshipped Braves Gold Glover Andruw Jones. Rafaela possesses the potential to make the same kind of highlight-reel catches, and on a team devoid of excitement, he's one of the few guys who might be able to provide it.

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