How Good is the Ceddanne Rafaela Extension?

And what is he trying to develop into?

Draft, develop, and extend early. If this is how good baseball teams work now — if we are living in the world that the Braves model has created — it’s easy to see why: players get lots of guaranteed money upfront, front offices get to employ players in their primes, and fans get to build connections with their favorite young superstars, with some degree of certainty that they won’t walk away at the height of their powers.

But even among young superstars, the landscape is surprisingly uneven. Ronald Acuña Jr. is the famous example of a young extension — his 8-year, $100 million deal, signed in early April of 2019, looks now like some of the best value in baseball. Ozzie Albies, who signed a seven-year, $35 million deal a little over a week after Acuña, has been fantastic, too. $17 million a year is too little for a player of Acuña’s achievements and ability, and $7 million for Albies is also relatively paltry. But, even if all the options on both players’ extensions are picked up, both Acuña and Albies will still have the chance to go to free agency at 31 and sign another huge deal. (Xander Bogaerts, for example, signed an 11-year, $280 million deal in 2022 at the age of 30.) In short, these young-player extensions are about getting security upfront and getting your “real value” — whatever that means — later, possibly in the aggregate.

Or there’s the Julio Rodriguez route. Rodriguez signed a 13-year, $210 million extension in August 2022, guaranteeing him both financial and geographic stability, at least for a while. He will next be a free agent at age 33. One comparison for that deal is Mike Trout’s extensions (6 and 12 years, respectively), but perhaps the best one is to Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325 million extension with the Marlins. Rodriguez has struggled a bit since the beginning of this year, but it’s almost certainly a blip on the radar of what will be a fantastic career.

It’s not surprising, given the success of some of these signings, that larger and larger amounts of money are being given out to players with less and less experience in the major leagues. Analytics plays some part in a team’s confidence that a 20-year-old can handle major-league pitching, but there is still some measure of uncertainty. Risk is more tolerable, though, when the reward is to refresh a franchise completely — something that isn’t normally affordable for most teams, especially on the free agent market. We’ll all get over the shock, someday, of hearing that the Royals signed the 23-year-old Bobby Witt Jr. to an 11-year, $288 million deal; or that Jackson Chourio had signed an 8-year extension with the Brewers reportedly worth $82 million despite not yet playing a major league game.

Somewhere in all this, there is the Ceddanne Rafaela extension. The Red Sox agreed to the deal in early April, and it is apparently worth $50 million over 8 years. What’s strange about the Rafaela contract isn’t the amount, which is relatively tame in the current landscape, or the fact that Rafaela had 49 days of service time when he signed it. That’s more than Chourio (0), Luis Robert Jr. (0), and Corbin Carroll (38), combined.

No, what’s strange here is that Rafaela is not a hitter first, or even much of a hitter at all. SoxProspects, the best source for news on (you guessed it) Sox prospects, profiles him as having a “potential fringe-average hit tool,” and notes that he carries a “very high chase rate against minor league arms.” These reports have held true at the major-league level: Rafaela’s chase percentage in 2024 is 42.1%, good (read: bad) for the third percentile in MLB, and more concerning, up from his brief cup-of-coffee in the majors last year, when he chased at a 38.8% rate over 89 plate appearances. SoxProspects does note that he has surprisingly good power for a relatively small player, but despite five home runs already this year, his OPS is only .599 — 165th of 188 players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2024.

Is this, then, a seriously bad contract?

No, not necessarily: Rafaela is really a defensive prospect. As a center-fielder, he has some of the best potential in MLB. On its own, that may not be quite enough to pay someone $6.25 million a year and suffer through the painful at-bats, but Rafaela is versatile, too: this year, after making the team as the everyday center-fielder, Rafaela has transitioned relatively seamlessly into the everyday shortstop role, which is anything but easy to do. His tools haven’t shone fully through on Statcast yet; his OAA in CF are at 2 and his OAA at SS are at an initially concerning -5. But he looks more like a player polishing up at the major league level than one trying to adjust to the pace. He makes a couple highlight-reel catches per week, and looks like he will be a truly great defender.

The modest thesis that I’m developing here is that, if the Red Sox have signed a superutility defender for $6.5 million per year, it might have been because of last year.


Who needs a defense-first player?


Every team has defense-first players. Few have defense-first players who can contribute all over the diamond. In some ways, calling up and extending Rafaela puts a hopeful coda on the 2023 Red Sox season: shortstop-less after the departure of Xander Bogaerts for San Diego and Trevor Story for the operating room, then-GM Chaim Bloom and Alex Cora turned to Kiké Hernandez, once the everyday center fielder, to fill in at short. Hernandez, nominally a utility player but actually a center fielder for 2021 and 2022 (when he played 8 and 10 games at shortstop, respectively), did not take to the role, committing 14 errors—13 throwing—over his first 46 games at the position. Hernandez was moved off short, and eventually traded at the deadline for two depth relievers.

Rafaela’s extension and seemingly permanent spot in the order, in some ways, is a response to what happened with and to Kiké. Hernandez had been a clubhouse leader and veteran who seemed to genuinely enjoy Boston and had provided some clutch postseason at-bats in 2021. There’s little doubt that asking him to play a position he wasn’t good at and wasn’t figuring out was bad for the team and bad for Kiké. Rafaela is trying to develop into the solution: a guy who can be solid everywhere, elite in the outfield, and able to move around in-season or even in-game.


Who can Rafaela be?


There are better comparisons for Rafaela out there, but the most illustrative one to think about as Rafaela continues to develop might be Jackie Bradley, Jr. Bradley Jr. was never a great hitter — he had an OPS+ over 100 in only 3 of his 11 MLB seasons, and often much lower — but he, like Rafaela, had pretty good power (26 home runs in 2016 was the high-water mark) and elite defensive tools. Bradley Jr. was more one-dimensional than Rafaela — he couldn’t play in the infield — but teams were always happy to employ his defensive skills if he could stay afloat with the bat. His 13 Outs Above Average in 2017 were good for 6th among major-league outfielders, and he stayed remarkably consistent, posting 63 Outs Above Average from 2016 until 2023, and never recording a year below 4.

As Rafaela plays out the rest of his 8-year deal, I’ll be measuring him up to Jackie Bradley Jr., and hoping that we can see him post that kind of consistent defense all over the diamond. It’s rare to see such a defense-first prospect, one hoping that he can hang on with the bat as other things flourish. But if this pays off, we may get to see a kind of reverse-developing player, and quite an entertaining one. The truth with extensions and small sample sizes is that it will be too early to say for a while yet — a year or even two, maybe. But as an idea, a Rafaela-forward defense is an interesting one; if it works, it will be a seriously interesting and intelligent solution to a long-term defensive problem. If, in 6 years, Rafaela is batting a respectable ninth, putting up a dozen OAA in center field, filling in at short and third as needed, and holding down a Red Sox core that has no other great defensive prospects (Rafael Devers and Triston Casas don’t seem like long-term defensive stalwarts), we may remember him as the strangest and most interesting piece of a very good team.

Paul Michaud

Paul Michaud's first memory is David Ortiz's walk-off homer in the 2004 ALCS. Nothing has topped that since. A Brown alum, he's also an editor and fiction writer.

One response to “How Good is the Ceddanne Rafaela Extension?”

  1. DDD says:

    Reminds me of Cristian Pache – a highly ranked prospect that was quickly supplanted by a somewhat obscure (at the time) Michael Harris.

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