The easiest thing about being among the worst teams to ever play a 162-game baseball season is that, once August rolls around, you can start to play some of your big league-ready prospects. One problem for the Orioles that led them to the cellar in the first place is that they don’t have many of these ready for an audition, but they do have at least one in Cedric Mullins.
Mullins didn’t join the team the moment that the trade deadline passed, but other than that, the O’s mostly got his arrival right. They got the buy-in from Adam Jones to move him to right field and they called up Mullins for his debut on August 10 and he has been their center fielder of the present and hopefully future ever since. ...at least until this week.
After starting 15 games in a row after his call-up, Mullins was on the bench for Sunday night’s game against the Yankees. The explanation given was that he was day-to-day with hip soreness. OK, it happens. Mullins then played the next game before riding the bench for the last two games against the Blue Jays, appearing only as a ninth inning defensive replacement on Tuesday night.
The easy explanation that presents itself is that they just want to make sure that Mullins is all the way better, but if that’s the case, why play him on Monday or in the ninth inning on Tuesday? Perhaps that’s why when Buck Showalter addressed the situation before Wednesday’s game, he came right out and said there was another, bigger reason he wasn’t playing Mullins:
Cedric has got tomorrow off, too, and I know we’ve got three right-handed starters in Kansas City. But we, as an organization, want to see John (Andreoli) in center, and (Mullins) is going to get plenty of playing time between now and the end of the season. Hopefully, he can stay healthy and get this completely out of the way. But I’m not going to tell you that’s the chief reason he’s not playing. That wouldn’t be honest.
It’s not unheard of for Showalter to make some cagey statements that dance around or obfuscate how much one of his day-to-day players is ailing. If the O’s thought Mullins needed more rest and didn’t really want to say that, “We want to get a look at John Andreoli in center,” is the sort of thing they would say that’s true but not the whole truth or even most of the truth.
The main obstacle to believing that’s what is happening is Showalter himself takes pains here to say it wouldn’t be honest to say the chief reason Mullins isn’t playing is due to concerns about the hip injury lingering.
Maybe Showalter is just protesting too much. If he’s not, the Orioles are being their weird selves here. There is no reason whatsoever that the team should be spending any time worrying about whether a 28-year-old outfielder who was not in the organization two weeks ago is playing center field or not, when they have a center field prospect from their own organization right here and now in Mullins.
If getting Andreoli some looks is that important, put him in left field for the rest of the season instead of playing 34-year-old Craig Gentry out there, who has even less business getting playing time in the waning weeks of a possible 114-loss team. The Orioles can look at Andreoli in center field next year during spring training. For some reason I don’t understand, they are choosing differently.
During Tuesday’s broadcast, MASN’s Gary Thorne alluded to the possibility that the O’s might envision Mullins as more of a platoon player in the future. Thorne noted that although Mullins is a switch-hitter, his performance as a minor leaguer was significantly better as a left-handed batter facing right-handed pitchers. Perhaps not coincidentally, the two games Mullins did not start against the Blue Jays were with lefty starters on the mound.
The information about the splits in the minors was not wrong. Here are Mullins’s platoon splits from Norfolk this year and Bowie last year:
- vs. Left, Norfolk 2018: .220/.322/.340
- vs. Right, Norfolk 2018: .281/.337/.464
- vs. Left, Bowie 2017: .208/.277/.327
- vs. Right, Bowie 2017: .293/.339/.524
None of these are overwhelming sample sizes, as Mullins spent only about half of this season at Norfolk and was only healthy for about half of last season at Bowie, but it does point more towards an idea that Mullins, who as a lefty thrower might just be more natural as a lefty batter, isn’t cut out for switch hitting for long. If you’re going to stink against one type of pitcher, it might as well be lefties, because there aren’t as many of them out there.
Mullins not ending up as an every day big league regular would not even be a surprise to the people who spend a lot of time writing about baseball prospects. There has been something of a consensus among that group for a while that Mullins might just be a future fourth outfielder. Individually and collectively, they can be wrong in their assessments. Sometimes a player can exceed what the prospect world believes he can do. Sometimes he can’t.
Are the Orioles already thinking this about Mullins? They do need to be clear-eyed as they evaluate their prospects in this rebuild, because nothing will set them back more than getting it wrong about what roles the players they already have in the organization might be capable of having on the next good Orioles team. We are going to see a number of new players during this rebuilding process and some will not be good enough to be an answer.
However, if the Orioles are deciding things about Mullins based on 17 big league games, and if their platoon partner is John Andreoli, that’s self-defeating. They made the big move to shift Jones to right to see what Mullins can do. There is not a better prospect right now to force Mullins into a platoon role or down to the fourth outfielder role.
That time may arrive in the next couple of seasons with the hopeful arrival of Austin Hays, Yusniel Diaz, and even Ryan McKenna, but until then, there’s no good reason not to play a healthy Mullins. It’s not like any of these games matter. They aren’t very likely to matter next year, either.
If the Orioles are making sure Mullins is all the way healthy, that is fine. They should just say so. Instead, Showalter specifically denied that as the reason why Mullins has had a couple of days off. The Orioles are determined to be weird even about the slam-dunk decision to call up their one MLB-ready position player prospect and play him every day.