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No longer center stage, can Cedric Mullins and Yusniel Diaz take a step closer to the show?

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Adley Rutschman’s star power and the emergence of Austin Hays should reduce the pressure on Mullins and Diaz this spring. Will they take a step forward?

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Now that full-squad workouts are under way, how are you feeling? You can be honest, it’s a judgement-free zone here. Has any stereotypical optimism crept into your head, or are you too consumed with the looming threat of another 100-loss season?

Both are understandable. There are no wrong answers here either.

The second year of Mike Elias’s tenure has a bit of a different feel to it. There’s still no expectations, but there’s a slightly brighter future on the horizon. You just have to squint hard enough at the list of non-roster invites to camp (well, the younger ones) to see it.

The largest mark of progress in Baltimore has come at the minor league level. The Orioles have worked their way into the top half of several farm systems rankings, and another losing year will only increase the influx of talent.

While reigning top pick Adley Rutschman, along with the two-headed monster of Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, may be a year or two away from Baltimore, there are several players worth keeping an eye on. It’s a change of pace from the end of the Dan Duquette era when the top prospect in the organization was, well, Yusniel Diaz.

That’s not meant as a slight against Diaz. The 23-year-old outfielder was once considered a top 100 prospect league-wide by Baseball America, and he remains a consensus top 10 prospect in the Orioles’ organization. Diaz impressed in the first half of 2018 before the Dodgers shipped him to Baltimore in July, but struggled after he arrived at Bowie.

Multiple injuries last season, a hamstring and a quad issue, prevented Diaz from settling into a rhythm. However, Diaz slashed an impressive .299/.353/.514 through 28 games last July. His 11 home runs were good for second on the team, despite the righty playing in only 85 games.

A healthy 2019 likely would have landed Diaz in Norfolk, but he never made it to the Tides. It’s not clear at this point where he’ll start the season, but he’ll likely spend the majority of the year at Triple-A.

Diaz should get an extended look at big league camp this spring, and will likely feel a bit more at ease than he did during his brief stop in Sarasota last year. The presence of Rutschman and other prospects should relieve some of the pressure on Diaz.

There’s no way of knowing if/how it made an impact, but entering a new organization as the guy sent for Manny Machado cannot be easy. Diaz, partially by default, was immediately labeled the team’s top prospect— a role he never played in LA.

A larger than necessary burden placed on an outfielder wearing black and orange? That one sounds a bit familiar. Around the same time the Orioles acquired Diaz, they sent Cedric Mullins to the show. Mullins, who began 2018 at Bowie, had played only 60 games at Triple-A prior to getting the call. He replaced O’s legend Adam Jones in center field, and was quickly labeled a face of the rebuild.

Mullins flashed potential, but slashed just .235/.312/.359 over 45 games. Still, he showed enough to pencil himself in as the starting center fielder in 2019.

We all know how that went.

Mullins recorded only six hits in 74 plate appearances at the big league level before being reassigned to Norfolk. When his struggles continued, he found himself back at Bowie.

It was never a reasonable ask for Mullins to slide right in and replace Jones. The former 13th-round pick had success at Bowie, but certainly could have used a bit more time to develop. His promotion, and struggles, were a direct result of the lack of depth in the Orioles organization at the time.

The reemergence of 2016 third-round pick Austin Hays has prevented either Diaz or Mullins from being linked to a starting gig this season. While Hays will enter 2020 with even less big league experience than Mullins had a year ago, he appears to be a little more prepared to make the jump at 24 years old.

The presence of Hays, and the development of former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander, certainly lightens the pressure for Mullins to get back on track. Mullins could compete for a fourth outfield spot this spring, but a return to Norfolk could increase his confidence and consistency.

No one expects Diaz to compete for a big league spot this season, but Rutschman and fellow top prospect Ryan Mountcastle should dominate the headlines this spring. Both players should feel comfortable in camp, enjoy fewer distractions and feel less pressure to show immediate success. A healthy Diaz and Mullins can both take a step toward the big leagues this spring, and they might just do it out of the spotlight.