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Cedric Mullins will be the Orioles center fielder in 2019, but there’s no guarantee beyond that

The young switch-hitter is likely to get a one-year trial period in the Orioles outfield, but he has internal competition coming for his job.

Oakland Athletics v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Cedric Mullins was the most exciting thing about the Orioles last season. There’s room for debate there, of course, but in a campaign so packed with disappointment, he stuck out as a rare ray of hope. His skill set (speed, athleticism, defense) had become a foreign concept in Baltimore, and his impressive debut (3-for-4, two doubles, two RBI, a walk) made for the most interesting baseball viewing of the year. But the shine of being the “fresh-faced rookie” wears off quickly. The Orioles are rebuilding, and there will be plenty of opportunities for young players to prove themselves, but Mullins plays one of the most competitive positions in the organization, so he will need to make 2019 count.

Looking back at Mullins’s 45-game big league audition reveals that he was not quite as good statistically as it may have felt at the time. Across 191 plate appearances, the diminutive center fielder slashed .235/.312/.359 with nine doubles, four home runs, 17 walks, 37 strikeouts and two stolen bases on five attempts. That works out to a .298 wOBA, 86 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR and -0.2 bWAR.

None of those numbers are really encouraging, but it’s also a small sample size and he was a rookie. It’s also nowhere near enough data to write Mullins off. He showed more than enough ability between his cup of coffee in Baltimore and his stops in Bowie and Norfolk last year to warrant an extended run as the Orioles center fielder of the present.

The Orioles will be hoping for a marked improvement in his defense next year. FanGraphs gave him negative marks across the board for his arm (-0.9), range (-5.9) and, ultimately, UZR (-6.5). That all amounted to -6 defensive runs saved, which is quite poor. Again, these are small samples. Many outfielders have spoken in the past about adjusting from small minor league stadiums to massive major league stadiums with more lights and several tiers of seats. It takes time. Most scouts viewed Mullins as an above average prospect with the glove down on the farm. That hasn’t changed. If he takes strides in the field, that will provide an automatic boost to his overall value.

One aspect of his game that may not change is how much Mullins struggles against left-handed pitching. Mullins is a switch hitter, giving him twice as much work to maintain two swings. Throughout his time in the minors he hit right-handers much better than he did lefties. That continued during his brief time with the Orioles.

Mullins went 7-for-45 (all singles) with eight walks and 18 strikeouts against southpaws between August and September in Baltimore this year. Conversely, he put together a 33-for-125 line against righties with four home runs, nine doubles, nine walks and 19 strikeouts. That is a 108-point difference in batting average, a 23-point difference in on-base percentage and a 274-point swing in slugging. At no level has Mullins ever done better against lefties than righties, and quite often it is by a hefty margin.

Perhaps a new coaching staff or an updated organizational approach to hitting will save Mullins’s right-handed swing. Or maybe it’s time to ditch it altogether and focus on the left-handed approach.

Whatever Mullins needs to do to be at the top of his game will have to be done relatively soon because the Orioles outfielder is about to get crowded. Mullins and D.J. Stewart arrived in 2018 and should both get a chance to start everyday in 2019. But they could soon be joined by Yusniel Diaz, Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna and maybe even Ryan Mountcastle. Out of that group, McKenna would seem to be the only real threat to unseat Mullins in center, but Diaz and Hays both have the ability to play the position as well.

McKenna is in the middle of a monstrous Arizona Fall League season that, paired with his performance between Frederick and Bowie this summer, could send him rocketing up prospect lists.

Diaz is universally thought of as the organization’s top prospect. Although he struggled after arriving from the Dodgers in the Manny Machado swap, most industry experts believe he has plenty of ability to be an everyday outfielder.

Mountcastle may be one of the best pure hitters in all minor league baseball. Everything else about his game is a little iffy, but a big bat is sorely needed for a Baltimore team in lack of star power.

And Hays had a nightmare 2018 after a dream 2017. Opinions are split on his future ability, but he already has a few weeks of major league experience under his belt. A healthy off-season could see him catapulted back into the outfield conversation in Baltimore earlier than some of his peers.

All of Diaz, Hays, McKenna and Mountcastle finished 2018 with double-A Bowie. There is no real urgency for the Orioles to push any of them to the majors prior to September in 2019, but all of them are likely to be pounded on the big league door by the time Opening Day 2020 rolls around.

Mullins is a solid player. He’s overachieved to this point. He may continue to do so and beat back internal competition. But he was never viewed as an elite prospect. He will not get an open-ended chance to show he’s the man for the job. The 2019 season may be his one and only chance to shine.