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Know Your Orioles 40-man: Cedric Mullins

The homegrown O’s center fielder busted loose for an amazing 2021 season. What does he have in store for an encore?

Texas Rangers v Baltimore Orioles
Expect more curtain calls from Cedric Mullins in 2022 and beyond.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

This article is part of the Know Your Orioles 40-man series, which features an article about each player currently on the Orioles roster. There will be one every weekday until we run out of players.

So. Here’s the most important question about Cedric Mullins.

Who’s going to play him in the movie?

All right, fine, maybe it’s a bit too early to whip up a feature-length biopic about a guy who has spent his entire major league career with the very worst team in baseball. But the Orioles’ woes certainly aren’t Mullins’ fault. And his story as a professional athlete has been filled with everything you might find in a Hollywood script. It’s a master class in overcoming adversity, a roller-coaster ride of breathtaking triumphs and stunning failures, from replacing a franchise icon to slumping his way out of the majors to achieving historic success while battling a serious health condition.

Not bad for a guy who has just over two years of major league service time.

There’s no shortage of superlatives to describe Mullins’ epic 30-homer, 30-steal season, which made him the only MLB player to achieve the feat last year and the first in the storied history of the Orioles franchise. What stands out most about Mullins’ breakout is just how unexpected it was, considering not only what we knew before the season — he had a career .632 OPS and just seven homers entering last year — but what we learned shortly afterward: that Mullins has recently battled Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory disease of the intestines.

Mullins revealed his diagnosis last month in a video for MLB Players Media, explaining that he was suffering chronic stomach pain throughout the 2020 season and underwent surgery that November once doctors identified the cause. Mullins added that he didn’t talk about it last year because he didn’t want to overshadow Trey Mancini’s inspiring comeback from colon cancer. So if you were wondering what kind of dude Mullins is: he’s a real good one.

Mullins has been a guy worth cheering for since he debuted in the bigs in 2018 with the full endorsement of Adam Jones, the longtime O’s center fielder and vocal clubhouse leader. In a metaphorical passing of the torch, Jones agreed to shift to right field to accommodate the then-23-year-old. The arrival of Mullins, the Orioles’ 13th round pick from Campbell University (N.C.) in 2015, offered a glimpse into the future for the rebuilding Birds, with the possibility that he’d be a table setter atop the lineup for the next good, young O’s team.

One year later, Mullins was indeed leading off a postseason game — except it was for the Double-A Bowie Baysox, after he’d fared so terribly in the majors in early 2019 that he was demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, then continued to slump his way into a second demotion. Mullins was at a crossroads, his professional baseball future in doubt. His MLB career seemed like it might be over barely after it began. If this were a movie, it’s the part where he’d be meandering ruefully through a torrential rainstorm, wondering where to go from here.

And then: the comeback. (Cue the swelling orchestra score.) Mullins held his own as the Orioles’ fourth outfielder for the truncated 2020 season, showing that at least his speed and defense had a place in the majors, even as he unknowingly battled the effects of Crohn’s. And last year, it all clicked, as Mullins finally proved he could hit at the major league level — and far better than anyone could have imagined.

How did it happen? Mullins’ offseason surgery in 2020 might have helped him feel better on the field, but it doesn’t solely explain his newfound thump at the plate. His 30 homers were more than twice his season high in the minors (14 for Low-A Delmarva in 2016). His .518 slugging percentage far eclipsed his career minors mark of .426.

For Mullins, perhaps the most dramatic change in 2021 was that he finally gave up switch-hitting — something that had originally been suggested to him back in the Buck Showalter era — and went left-handed only. The impact was immediate. Mullins posted an impressive .788 OPS against southpaws last year as a lefty, after an anemic .502 mark in 2020, when he batted right-handed against them. Tabling his ineffective righty swing and focusing on his stronger side led Mullins to square up the ball much more than in the past. His barrel percentage, which sat at less than three percent in his first three seasons, jumped to 8.1 percent in 2021. His hard-hit percentage, too, rose to 39.4, way up from 31.8 the previous year. Barrel the ball and hit it hard, and good things will happen, as Mullins proved.

Mullins might not match the lofty heights of 2021 again, but he doesn’t need to post another 30-30 season to remain a valuable member of the Orioles. His speed and defense alone make him a capable big leaguer, and if his offensive improvement is real — and there’s no reason to think it isn’t — he’s going to be a lot of fun to watch for a long time.

End-of-season prediction: No player can ever feel truly safe about their long-term future on a rebuilding team, but it would be a jaw-dropping shocker if the Orioles traded Mullins in 2022. He’s young, he’s very good, and he’s under team control through 2025, by which time the Orioles will have (hopefully) finally seen the fruits of their rebuilding labor pay off into a young, contending team. Expect Mullins to remain an Oriole in 2022 and beyond, playing a key role on the next postseason O’s club. It’ll be just as we’d hoped when we first saw him in 2018 — even if he took a circuitous route to get there.

Previously: Félix Bautista, Logan Gillaspie, Isaac Mattson, Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker, Rougned Odor, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Kyle Bradish, Rylan Bannon, Yusniel Díaz, Kelvin Gutiérrez, Kevin Smith, Terrin Vavra, D.L. Hall, Jahmai Jones, Bruce Zimmermann, Mike Baumann, Ryan McKenna, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin, Jorge López, Ramón Urías, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Zac Lowther, Alexander Wells, Cole Sulser, Jorge Mateo, Tanner Scott, DJ Stewart, Ryan Mountcastle, Tyler Wells, Austin Hays, Anthony Santander, Trey Mancini, John Means

Tomorrow: Jordan Lyles