As if the Orioles losing to the Guardians yesterday wasn’t enough, Birdland’s Memorial Day was further soured by the news of an injury to Cedric Mullins. The Orioles’ center fielder pulled up trying to run out a ground ball in the 8th inning, and then left the game with what was later announced as an abductor/groin injury.
The Mullins injury is noteworthy for two reasons. Primarily, it deprives the Orioles of their leadoff hitter and one of their most consistent hitters in an offense that has been anything but consistent. Among all position players, Mullins currently leads the team with a 1.8 WAR and leads the O’s with a .484 slugging percentage. To say the Orioles are currently ill-equipped to properly replace Mullins—should his injury require a lengthy recovery—is an understatement.
However, the other thing that this injury will test is how the Orioles plan to approach the periphery of this roster going forward. The Orioles have four players at Triple-A Norfolk who could presumably be moved up to Baltimore in light of Mullins’s injury. Two of them are players we’ve already seen in Baltimore this season. Two are players who would send ripples of excitement through Birdland—excitement that might make up for some of the disappointment caused by Mullins’s injury.
The most logical replacement for Mullins would be outfielder Kyle Stowers. The second-year outfielder started the season on the major league roster, but after going 2-30 across 14 games and two stints, the front office sent him back to Norfolk to try and regain some of the success he saw in 2022.
Stowers is far from the most exciting option—and his promotion would have to wait as he was placed on the 7-day IL on May 24 with a shoulder injury—but he’d cause the least disruption in the Orioles’ depth chart. Ryan McKenna and Austin Hays can slide into center while Stowers fills the depth role currently occupied by McKenna. Stowers is also already on the 40-man roster, meaning the O’s wouldn’t have to add someone to the 40-man only to remove them (or someone else) when Mullins returns.
The other less-complicated option would be to replace Mullins on the roster with infielder Joey Ortiz. The Orioles’ current No. 6 prospect has found more success at the big league level this year than Stowers, hitting .259 with four RBIs. Ortiz has been particularly effective against left-handed pitching and provides the O’s with another plus defender in the infield. Promoting Ortiz in place of Mullins would require players like Terrin Vavra and Adam Frazier to fill in more often in the corner outfield spots, but that’s something they’re both comfortable doing. Like Stowers, Ortiz is already on the 40-man roster. Also like Stowers, Ortiz would represent the front office prioritizing keeping the status quo instead of swinging for the fences on a Mullins replacement.
If Mike Elias & Co. want to really shake up the roster, there are two players who could achieve exactly that: Colton Cowser and Jordan Westburg. There are some parallels in what Cowser or Westburg offer compared to Stowers and Ortiz. Cowser is a like-for-like replacement for Mullins in that he would immediately slot into the Orioles’ outfield rotation without having to shift around players like Vavra or Frazier.
Cowser, while currently sidelined with a quad injury, has also dominated Triple-A in a way that leaves little doubt he’s ready to make the step up to the big leagues. Cowser currently sits eighth in the International League with a 1.023 OPS. He also may offer the best replacement for Mullins in the leadoff spot. Cowser has shown elite on-base skills through the beginning of the Triple-A season, ranking third in the league in on-base percentage while also ranking in the top 10 in walks. Unlike Stowers, Cowser also has the ability to play center field, and while he doesn’t have the range of Mullins he’s plenty capable defensively.
Colton Cowser does it all.— The Verge- An Orioles MiLB Podcast (@BSLOnTheVerge) September 28, 2022
Westburg, meanwhile, isn’t the obvious replacement in that most of his defensive innings this season have come at SS and 3B. However, Westburg could also be the most impactful option when it comes to replacing Mullins’s bat. In 135 games for Norfolk over the last two seasons, Westburg has put up an astounding 31 HRs, 36 2Bs and 118 RBIs. While not the natural leadoff hitter that Mullins or Cowser are, Westburg can provide the type of pop that the O’s lineup has often been searching for this season. The 24-year old out of Mississippi State also offers more versatility than someone like Ortiz in that Westburg has logged 44 innings in the corner outfield this season. He also offers tape measure home runs like this one:
Where things get complicated with Cowser (other than his current IL stint) and Westburg comes from the fact that they’re not currently on the 40-man roster. Some will view the Mullins injury as a perfect opportunity to give a top prospect like Westburg or Cowser a test run at the big league level. After all, there’s currently an open spot on the 40-man, so either could be added to the roster without removing anyone yet.
The problem comes in that, eventually, they will have to jettison someone into the waivers abyss to keep Cowser or Westburg on the 40-man—whether they stay in the big leagues or not. If all goes well with Mullins’ injury, he may only be out a handful of weeks. That begs the question of whether that period of time will be enough to properly evaluate Cowser or Westburg and figure out who might get booted from the 40-man roster in order to keep them around.
The aggressive team builder will look at the opportunity to integrate another high-caliber prospect and not hesitate to make it reality. If that means accelerating the eventual removal of someone like Ryan McKenna from the 40-man roster, then so be it.
The more practical team builder will not want to accelerate their carefully laid out rebuilding plan by making a hasty move as a reaction to an injury. If the front office had it in their plans to bring up Westburg and/or Cowser, they would have done it by now. An unexpected injury to an important player should not completely change the patiently constructed plan you have for this roster and the minor leaguers that will one day be a part of it.
Now Birdland will have a front row view to seeing just how aggressive this front office choses to be when it comes to replacing Mullins. Many will surely hope that Elias & Co. take this opportunity to integrate another of the promising prospects that are the lifeblood of this now-successful rebuild. Others will undoubtedly wait to either welcome back Stowers/Ortiz to the big leagues with open arms—or deride the front office for taking the safe and unimaginative route.
That’s not to say that if Cowser or Westburg aren’t called up now, they won’t be called up at all this season. However, now offers a temporary “Get Out of Jail Free” card of sorts when it comes to the dilemma of having to kick someone off the 40-man roster in order to add one of the prospects. Whether the front office cashes in on this opportunity may tell us how aggressive they plan to be with their promotions the rest of the season.
Who should replace Cedric Mullins on the roster if he goes on the IL?
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