Once considered a can't-miss piece of the future, Jarren Duran now finds himself in baseball limbo.
He soared up the prospect boards a year ago after a power surge at Triple-A Worcester and made his big league debut in July, singling in his first at-bat off of Yankees ace Gerrit Cole.
It did not take long for rivals to write the book on him, however, exploiting a giant hole in his swing by attacking him with pretty much anything above the belt. He hit just .215 and struck out in nearly 40 percent of his plate appearances.
He spent the winter tinkering with his stance, raising his hands pre-pitch in the hopes of covering more of the zone and rediscovering the line-drive approach that had made him a prospect in the first place. It's hard to argue with the results at Triple-A Worcester, where Duran was hitting .305 with six homers, 11 steals, and a .910 OPS before being recalled as a COVID replacement for infielder Christian Arroyo on Wednesday.
If that designation sounds temporary, welcome to Duran's life. He started in center in a 4-3 loss to the A's on Thursday and went 2 for 3, including a gorgeous drag bunt leading off the first inning. But he also misplayed a shallow fly to center in the third that led to three Oakland runs, and he'll probably be headed back to Worcester when Arroyo returns.
And so that leads to an obvious question: with the trade deadline looming in six weeks, what is Duran's future with the Red Sox?
A year ago, it would've been easy to pencil him into center field for the next six years. Now, it's not clear he'll even be here at the end of July.
When the Red Sox needed a replacement for center fielder Kiké Hernández on the recent West Coast trip, they summoned infielder Jonathan Arauz instead of Duran. Manager Alex Cora explained that with a banged-up Xander Bogaerts and off days looming for third baseman Rafael Devers and second baseman Trevor Story, they needed more coverage in the infield. Arauz, it should be noted, was hitting just .185 at Triple-A.
His stay proved short and he was designated for assignment two days later to make room for journeyman outfielder Rob Refsnyder. With a string of left-handed pitchers on the schedule, the right-handed bat made sense, and Refsnyder certainly delivered, making a pair of exceptional plays in the outfield and also going 3 for 4 in Tuesday's 6-1 win over the A's.
Because he joined the team for the first weekend in June during Jackie Bradley's paternity leave, Duran needed to spend 10 days in the minors before he could be recalled, except as an injured list replacement. So while he could've been summoned instead of Arauz after Hernández hit the IL, he wasn't eligible to join the team over Refsnyder.
Regardless, it's fair to wonder where he fits, even while Hernández remains sidelined by a hip injury. With Alex Verdugo established in left field and Bradley penciled into either center or right because of his glove, the final outfield spot may very well come down to defense, which favors Refsnyder.
Duran showed how his limitations in that regard on Thursday when he let second baseman Trevor Story call him off on a popup to shallow center. The backpedaling infielder let the ball sail inches over his head, but Duran should've caught it in his tracks. The A's went on to score three times off starter Rich Hill.
"Jarren needs to take charge on that one. We didn't make that play, and then from there they scored the runs," Cora said, adding that pop-up priority is, "Outfielders over infielders, middle infielders over the corners, corners over the catchers."
There's an impossibly fine line between prospect and suspect, and Duran is straddling it, especially with his 26th birthday looming in September. That's an age by which everyday regulars are expected to have established themselves. Duran is getting old for prospect purposes because he debuted at age 21 after being drafted out of college, and also because he lost a developmental year to the pandemic.
Whatever the cause, the reality is that he's aging into you'd-better-show-us-something territory. The Red Sox have played themselves back into contention and should be ready to deal at the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
That's going to require prospect capital, and any club looking for a big-league-ready outfielder with an intriguing combination of power and speed could do worse than Duran. That's how quickly fortunes can change in this game -- a year ago, Duran looked like Boston's center fielder of the future, and now he might be a piece that helps them upgrade their bullpen.