There is often cause for concern anytime a player’s performance leads to a demotion. But baseball is an extremely difficult sport, and it’s hardly uncommon for a player to return to the minors for further development. But if that player continues to struggle and drops another league? It’s fair to wonder if the guy will ever see the major leagues again.
Cedric Mullins recorded only six hits in 74 at bats to begin last season. He experienced modest success down the stretch in 2018, but appeared overmatched at the plate in every facet last spring. It was not a difficult choice for the Orioles to option him to Norfolk, but not unreasonable to think Mullins could straighten things out with the Tides.
Instead, Mullins continued to struggle. He slashed just .205/.272/.306 over 66 games at Norfolk and ended the season back at Double-A Bowie. Many teams may have written off Mullins after last season. Others may have stashed him in the minors in hopes he could bounced back. But only one team would take a player that fell all the way to the Eastern League and place them on its Opening Day roster. The Orioles were that team.
Mullins only broke camp with the O’s because of his ability to play all three outfield positions. The Orioles had lost Trey Mancini for the season, Dwight Smith Jr. could not play center field, and someone needed to back up Austin Hays. The competition boiled down to Mullins, Stevie Wilkerson and Mason Williams. The O’s went with Mullins.
Mullins began the season with just one hit in his first 13 at bats. His early season woes, paired with a dreadful 2019, were enough to justify a quick hook for the former 13th-round pick. Baltimore optioned Mullins the second week of August to make room for Keegan Akin on the active roster.
With Mullins at the alternate training camp in Bowie, the Orioles underwent a two week period with just three outfielders. Baltimore optioned DJ Stewart after an 0-14 start to the season, which left the club with only Anthony Santander, Hays and Smith Jr. For a brief period, the O’s made it work. Unfortunately, Hays made his way to the injured list with a fractured rib. Once again, Mullins’ ability to play center field brought him back to the bigs.
Mullins returned just over a week later and doubled his season hit total in his first two games. Seemingly out of nowhere, the former prospect caught fire. He increased his .077 batting average all the way to .296 before it eventually settled at .271 for the year.
Mullins led the majors with nine bunt singles and used his speed any chance he had. Mullins’ two triples in the season finale marked his ninth and 10th extra base hits on the season, and his rising on base percentage led to several leadoff appearances.
Expectations were low at the beginning of the season, but Mullins’ early season slump could have been the nail in the coffin. If Hays was not hit by a pitch in the middle of August, there is a legitimate chance Mullins would not have seen the majors again this year. Instead, the now 26-year-old positioned himself as contender to break camp with the team next season.
Mullins’ speed and defensive versatility make him a prime fourth outfielder. He lacks a strong throwing arm, but can serve as a pinch runner or defensive replacement late in games. The bunt singles were fun, but they represent an ability to get on base.
Mullins does not profile as an every day center fielder, but the guy we saw this year would not look out of place on a winning ball club. Can Mullins stick around until the O’s are contenders once again?
Mancini, Santander and Ryan Mountcastle all project as long term fixtures with the Birds. While both Mancini and Mountcastle can play first base, Austin Hays should receive another chance to be the guy in center field. DJ Stewart made quite the impression with seven home runs in less than two weeks this season, and there’s always the possibility of a waiver claim or free agent signing.
Mullins’ ability to play center will give him a leg up, but for how long? Yusniel Diaz, the top prospect the Orioles received in the Manny Machado deal with Los Angeles, should be due to make his debut at some point next year. Diaz has a strong enough arm to play all three outfield spots in a pinch, and prospect Ryan McKenna has shown the ability to stick in center long term. McKenna could make his way to Baltimore by the end of next season as well.
Stop me if you have heard this one before, but next season appears to be a make or break year for Mullins. If he produces at the plate, he could stick with the O’s for the duration of the season. However, another early slump could lead to another demotion, and the path back may not be so clear.