Boston’s prospect to watch this spring is …

February 1st, 2023

This story was excerpted from Ian Browne’s Red Sox Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

One of the key players to watch for the Red Sox this Spring Training is a guy who isn’t likely to make the team, but who could be a factor at some point in 2023 -- and seems poised to make an impact for years beyond that.

That would be the dynamic Ceddanne Rafaela, who plays jaw-dropping defense in center field and can also handle shortstop.

Now that he is on the 40-man roster, Rafaela will be in big league camp for the first time. The Curaçao native will also play for Team Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic.

It is enough to remind you of the track Xander Bogaerts had to the Majors in 2013. That was the year Bogaerts came to Spring Training for the first time, represented the Netherlands in the Classic and was with the Red Sox by August -- just in time to contribute to a World Series-winning team.

Though the Red Sox will never give a timetable on when they expect a player to make the Majors, there are hints that Rafaela could be reasonably close.

The first is that he was in Boston for the team’s annual Rookie Development Program last week. The Red Sox typically only invite players they believe have a chance at making their debut during that season. Also, when MLB Pipeline released its Top 100 Prospects list last week, Rafaela slotted in at No. 86. Next to the ranking was (ETA: 2023), referring to the projection of what year Rafaela will put on that Boston uniform for the first time.

Given his status as the upper-level prospect to watch for the Red Sox this season, the club is monitoring his development closely, while making sure he takes all the steps needed to succeed at the highest level.

While defense seems to come so naturally to Rafaela, he has worked hard to become a dangerous threat at the plate, albeit a threat who needs to improve his approach.

“He got a chance to play winter ball down in Puerto Rico, working on his approach,” said Red Sox director of player development Brian Abraham. “His ability to swing consistently at pitches in the strike zone is something that is a big focus of his. He has power. He drives the ball to all fields, despite the size, but being able to do that consistently with balls in the strike zone, it seems to be repetitive at times with a lot of our younger players. But that is really a huge difference maker for what makes big leaguers big leaguers.”

Rafaela, whose wiry 5-foot-8 frame and spectacular defense are enough to remind you of a young Mookie Betts, attacked the offseason with a narrow focus to improve his pitch recognition.

“Yes, of course, that was my main focus,” said Rafaela. “This offseason, it was really about controlling the zone to be ready. Every flip, every BP session I took, I tried to control the zone.”

The 22-year-old was also conscious of molding his body to withstand the rigors of a long baseball season.

“I've been really working on [the] physical side to get stronger so I can get through the season strong and finish strong,” Rafaela said.

The 2022 season was one to remember for Rafaela, who wasn’t on anyone’s radar as a Top 100 prospect at this time last year. In fact, he barely cracked Boston’s Top 30 list but finished the season at No. 3.

In 116 games -- 45 for High-A Greenville and 71 for Double-A Portland -- the right-handed hitter had a line of .299/.342/.538 with 32 doubles, 10 triples, 21 homers and 28 stolen bases.

While Triple-A Worcester seems to be the most likely starting spot for Rafaela in 2023, he knows there is no use in lowering his sights.

“As a player, everyone wants to start in the big leagues, but it's not up to me. I’ll just work hard to earn the chance to start here [in Boston],” Rafaela said.