Cedric Mullins slashed .271/.341/.402 across his final 51 games in 2019. Flash forward to present day, and Mullins appears to have an inside track at breaking camp with the Orioles. What’s so shocking about that? Well, Mullins posted those numbers in the Eastern League, not the American League.
Mullins’ fall from grace came quickly last season. After beginning the year as Baltimore’s starting center fielder, Mullins embarked on a multi-month pitfall that landed him back at Bowie. Some falls hurt more than others, and Mullins plummet seemed rather intense.
The Orioles drafted Mullins in the 13th round of the 2015 draft. The Campbell University product overachieved, and eventually found himself as the heir apparent to Adam Jones in center field. I’ve said it before, but it was unfair to dub Mullins the face of the O’s rebuild. Either way, that notion was quickly squashed at the beginning of last year.
There’s really not an abundance of reasons to believe Mullins would be successful for the Birds this season. After recording a mere six hits in 74 plate appearances for the O’s, Mullins’ struggles continued. He slashed just .205/.272/.306 over 66 games at Norfolk prior to his second demotion of the year.
Up to this point in Mike Elias’ tenure, the Orioles have required prospects to “prove it” at the minor league level. There’s a reason why O’s fans have not seen Ryan Mountcastle in Baltimore yet. Regardless of need, and there’s been several needs on this rebuilding club, the current Orioles administration has required players to have success in the minors before getting a call to the show. Mullins certainly did not show a plethora of positives at Norfolk last season, so how could he jump back to Baltimore?
There’s a chance that Mullins will be grandfathered in. After all, he’s been to the bigs before. But even a peek back at his 2018 stop at Triple-A does not inspire an overwhelming amount of confidence.
Mullins slashed .269/.333/.438 over 60 games for the Tides in 2018. Those numbers are fine, but they’re a far cry from dominant, especially after he slashed .313/.362/.512 at Bowie in 49 games prior.
So why would Mullins head north with the Birds at the end of the month? Well, they need a fourth outfielder. O’s skipper Brandon Hyde has stated in the past that the club does not consider Dwight Smith Jr. as a viable option in center field, which provides Mullins a significant boost. DJ Stewart’s surgery and the ambiguity surrounding Trey Mancini’s condition only heighten the opportunities in the outfield.
The Orioles have refused to prioritize immediate need over development, and a fundamental shift would likely result in more young pitchers as opposed to position players. But does Mullins apply here? After all, he’s got 67 MLB games already under his belt. During a rebuild, the decision often boils down to one question. What is best for the player?
Mullins would likely benefit from everyday at bats at Norfolk. So... case closed, right? Not exactly. What’s a realistic “best case scenario” for the 25-year-old North Carolina native? Mullins projects, at best, as a fourth outfielder capable of backing up all three positions and adding speed off the bench. That’s all the Orioles are asking for this year.
If the switch hitter can bring that value, why not let him develop with the big club? He’s only hit above .275 once in the minors (that 2018 stop at Bowie), and his .235/.312/.359 slash line over 45 MLB games in 2018 seems obtainable. The Orioles have room for that player right now; in fact, they might need that player right now.
Still, Mullins is not the Orioles’ only option. Mason Williams can play all three outfield spots, and the Orioles do have room for him on the 40-man roster. The same goes for Stevie Wilkerson, who worked in a web gem or two in center last season. Regardless, someone has to back up Austin Hays in center.
Cedric Mullins will not make or break the 2020 Orioles, but 2020 could play a large part in shaping Mullins. While he has yet to impress this spring (.211/.286./.212), do not be surprised if he’s back in black (and orange) at the end of March.