Let’s cut to the chase. Cedric Mullins is struggling. It’s been so bad that you could make a compelling argument that, at this very moment, the center fielder is the worst player in all of Major League Baseball. At 24 years old and less than one full season of big league experience under his belt, it’s far too early to roll credits on Mullins’s career, but the Orioles have to do something to right the ship.
Mullins’s poor performance would not seem to be a result of bad luck. His 32.7% soft hit rate is the third-worst in MLB and his 82.6 mph average exit velocity is near the league cellar as well. Unsurprisingly, he also has one of the sport’s lowest line drive rates (8.0%). Owning just one of those “feats” would make it difficult to record hits against major league defenders, let alone all three. For whatever reason, the switch hitter is just not making solid contact, regardless of which side of the plate he stands.
If we want to speak in general terms, Mullins simply looks over-matched. So far, his 2019 has been a continuation of a pretty dreadful final month of his 2018. Last September, the Campbell University product managed just 20 hits in his final 107 at-bats to go along with 26 strikeouts and 10 walks. The late-season woes torpedoed what had been a fun MLB debut up to that point (.317/.386/.556 over 18 games in August ‘18).
Of course, it hasn’t all been bad news for the speedy outfielder.
Mullins’s defense seems sharper than it was during his 2018 cameo. He’s shown good instincts and uses his speed to make impressive plays look easier than they should, like he did in the 11-inning win over the Rays on Thursday night. Advanced metrics would agree. Although they still rate Mullins as slightly below-average with the leather, he has received improved grades on his range.
His speed on the base paths cannot be overlooked either. Baseball Savant has recorded an average sprint speed on 29.2 mph for Mullins this season, making him the second-fastest player on the Orioles (Richie Martin, 29.3 mph) and the 17th-fastest in all of MLB. That speed has contributed to his 0.4 BsR, which should only improve as the year wears on and as he, hopefully, reaches base with more regularity.
Down in Norfolk, the center field duties are currently being shared between Mason Williams and Stevie Wilkerson. Williams owns a career .289/.325/.396 line over 200 MLB plate appearances spent with the Yankees and Reds. Wilkerson has always shown flexibility in the field while producing just enough with the bat in the minors to remain relevant. Both of them would be a step down from Mullins in the field, and likely on the bases as well, but may yield better results with the lumber for the time being, and therefore provide more value overall.
As far as the 25-man roster is concerned, Joey Rickard presents an obvious alternative for the position, although he has more often played in the corners ever since the O’s selected him in the Rule 5 draft prior to the 2016 season. To a (much) lesser degree, Dwight Smith Jr. might be able to fill in as well. He did spend some time in center as a minor leaguer, but it’s been a few years since he did so with any consistency.
The Orioles center field conundrum is reminiscent of the problem they faced at catcher near the end of spring training, but in reverse. Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias had to choose between the hot hitting but questionable fielding of 24-year-old Chance Sisco or the sure hands and nearly non-existent bats of Jesus Sucre and Pedro Severino. Sisco’s poor major league track record likely made that an easier decision than we like to think.
What to do with Mullins is a bit harder. Like Sisco, he is of an age where there could still be some molding left to do. Some portion of that will have to be done at the major league level. That’s just the nature of the beast. But does he need to spend more time in Triple-A before that can happen?
The reality is that none of Williams, Wilkerson or Rickard are the going to be long term fixtures in center field at Camden Yards. Mullins may not be either, but he has the best chance of the bunch and should be handled accordingly.
It’s been mentioned on this blog and on other Orioles-centric sites, but it’s worth repeating that the wins by the major league team this season are of relative unimportance. What does matter is how some of the players who figure to impact the future round into form. Mullins is one of those few players that is currently on the Orioles roster.
Player development is not necessarily a one-size-fits-all process. Many players would benefit from being optioned back to Norfolk to work on things against easier competition and for lower stakes. Others would be shaken by the demotion. From my perspective, it’s impossible to tell which type of player Mullins is, but the coaching staff and front office should have a pretty good idea, and it’s getting to the point where something drastic may need to be done for the good of his future.