When it comes to Orioles prospects, we usually expect things to go wrong more than they go right.
Pitchers with sky-high potential fail to develop or get injured, or both. Promising young position players flame out before they reach the bigs. It’s not often that we actually see an Orioles prospect work his way up through the minors without incident and then contribute to the big league club as hoped.
Cedric Mullins, though, has done just that.
Mullins’ professional career started with little fanfare. He was a 5-foot-8, 13th-round draft pick in 2015 out of Campbell University in North Carolina and put up somewhat unremarkable numbers for short-season Aberdeen that season. But he took a big step forward in 2016 for Low-A Delmarva, batting .273/.321/.464 in 124 games, then skipped a level to Double-A Bowie the following year and put up a very similar slash line (.265/.319/.460).
Along the way, Mullins flashed tools in all facets of the game, playing a solid center field defensively while showing pop (27 homers from 2016-2017) and speed (56 steals in 73 attempts in his first three professional seasons). Mullins’ fast rise and promising potential made him the Orioles’ seventh-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline entering the 2018 season.
Mullins was limited to 76 games for the Baysox last year because of hamstring injuries, prompting the Orioles to keep him Bowie to start 2018. He quickly showed he had mastered the level, thumping Eastern League pitching for a .313/.362/.512 line in 49 games. He collected 23 extra-base hits, including six homers and five triples.
The Orioles promoted Mullins, 23, to Triple-A Norfolk on June 1 and, after a slow start (two hits in his first six games), he soon adjusted to the competition. In 60 games for the Tides, Mullins batted .269/.333/.438/.771 with six homers and 19 RBIs.
Meanwhile, the Orioles’ 2018 season had become an unmitigated disaster, and the club was trading off veterans and committing to a rebuild. Still, they took their sweet time bringing Mullins to the majors. Part of the issue was that the O’s weren’t sure what to do with Adam Jones, the club’s vocal leader and entrenched center fielder, who had invoked his 10-and-5 rights to veto a potential trade at the deadline.
Finally, on Aug. 10, the Orioles stopped dilly-dallying and gave Mullins the call-up to the show, with Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter indicating that he would be the club’s regular center fielder for the foreseeable future. Jones accommodated Mullins by moving to right field, the first time in his 11-year Orioles career he’d played any position other than center.
End of an Era!!!! Embrace Change!!!!— 10 (@SimplyAJ10) August 10, 2018
Mullins was an immediate hit in his big league debut. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles, three runs scored, and two RBIs out of the No. 9 slot, including an RBI two-bagger in his first at-bat. Mullins was the first Oriole in history to collect three hits in his major league debut. Embrace change, indeed. (Of course, in true 2018 Orioles fashion, the club wasted Mullins’ stupendous effort by coughing up 19 runs.)
Since then, Mullins has had his ups and downs, as one does. He finished August batting .317 with a .941 OPS in 18 games, but suffered his first extended slump by going 4-for-37 in the first 10 games of September. He’s course-corrected since then, batting .378 in his next nine games before taking an 0-for-5 yesterday afternoon. All told, Mullins is hitting .268/.342/.415 in 38 games and has established residence in the leadoff spot, where he’s made 30 of his 36 starts.
It should be mentioned that the Orioles, for a time, were inexplicably benching Mullins against left-handed pitchers. Granted, the switch-hitting Mullins has a history of struggling against lefties — this year across the majors and minors, he has a .674 OPS off them as opposed to .847 against righties — but still, the rebuilding O’s should be using this lost season to evaluate whether Mullins can hit lefties in the majors. They seem to have finally realized that, starting him against the last four southpaws the Birds have faced.
Let’s turn to defense, where, curiously, Mullins hasn’t yet been quite the upgrade the O’s were anticipating. He’s certainly better in center than Jones, of course, but Mullins so far has looked a bit tentative with his routes and hasn’t taken full advantage of his speed. In an extremely small sample size, FanGraphs has tagged Mullins with -7 defensive runs saved, one of the dozen worst marks among MLB center fielders this year. (Jones had -18.)
It could be that Mullins is still getting accustomed to major league ballparks, so his shaky defense is nothing to get too concerned about yet. If it gets to be late 2019 and Mullins still hasn’t improved, though, the Orioles may have a conversation on their hands about whether he’s better suited for left field.
Another part of Mullins’ game that hasn’t yet translated to the bigs is his stolen base ability. At Bowie and Norfolk this year, he was 21-for-22 in stolen base attempts, but he didn’t steal his first bag in the majors until his 32rd game. He’s 2-for-4 in steal attempts so far. Again, that aspect of Mullins’ game should improve with experience.
Mullins isn’t the perfect player, and he has a few kinks to work out in the majors. But he’s the most promising prospect to debut with the Orioles this year, and if all goes well, he could be manning the outfield for the next successful O’s squad.