Will Crowded Outfield Push Mullins to New Heights?

Cedric Mullins runs the bases.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

On August 10 of the 2018 season, Orioles fans experienced quite a bittersweet feeling — the passing of the center field torch from Adam Jones to Cedric Mullins. The former moved from center to right field to accommodate the latter, with the expectation that Mullins would be the long-term answer for the O’s in center field.

The switch-hitting rookie made an immediate impact in the lineup after taking over, slashing .317/.386/.556 for the remainder of his opening month. September was not as kind to the newcomer, however, as he batted just .187/.269/.243 for the rest of the season.

Questions arose about Mullins’ ability as a switch hitter. On August 22, Steve Melewski of MASNsports.com wrote that the organization told Mullins they may ask him to only bat left-handed if he did not make improvements from the right side.

In 2017 with Double-A Bowie, Mullins batted .293/.339/.524 from the left side, but posted a line of just .208/.277/.327 from the right.

In 2018, from three different levels:

  • 218 PAs with Bowie: .317/.373/.509 from left, .300/.317/.525 from right
  • 267 PAs with Triple-A Norfolk: .281/.337/.464 from left, .220/.322/.340 from right
  • 191 PAs with Baltimore: .264/.319/.432 from left, .156/.296/.156 from right

Heading into the 2019 regular season campaign, there will be some questions that need to be answered regarding the 24-year-old center fielder’s splits: Will Mullins improve from the right side? If he doesn’t, will the new staff ask him to ditch hitting right-handed? Will he be limited to a platoon role if he makes no improvements facing lefties?

It’s no secret the O’s have a good looking future in the outfield. Mullins is included in this of course, as the club’s expected starting center fielder. With Trey Mancini handling current left field duties until a spot is cleared for him at first base or designated hitter, this leaves the remainder of the competing players fighting for right field.

Yusniel Diaz mans his spot in the OF.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

Joey Rickard and Eric Young Jr. are looking to break camp in any type of role on the O’s roster, but prospects DJ Stewart, Austin Hays and Yusniel Diaz are knocking on the door for shots as starters going forward. Former Rule 5 pick Anthony Santander is a forgotten man in the outfield mix, despite putting together a hot start this spring.

The talented prospect trio of Stewart, Hays and Diaz will likely hit the majors at some point in 2019. Limited spots will be available, though, depending on the timing of each of their arrivals. If the O’s can clear a spot for Mancini in a first base or designated hitter slot, this leaves the two corner spots available to those three players.

What if Mullins struggles for most of the year, but Stewart, Hays and Diaz are all lighting it up? Should the switch-hitting center fielder keep his spot no matter what, or should Hays or Diaz be given looks in center as well?

Also, prospect Ryan McKenna is coming off a breakout 2018 campaign and looking to make more noise in the O’s minors in 2019. The 22-year old has a projected ceiling of a well-rounded starting center fielder in the future, and has a 2020 estimated time of arrival, via MLB Pipeline.

Austin Hays looks down to the 3B coach.

GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld

The talk among fans is how the Orioles will plan to place the plethora of young outfielders alongside Mullins. There is no doubt he will be getting first dibs on center field and will be given every opportunity to stick there long term.

Mullins will likely have a long leash — as he is young, talented and entering just his first full big-league season — but he shouldn’t be immune from being potentially replaced. This, of course, would only be in a situation where he is not performing well, but Stewart, Hays and Diaz could all be deserving of consistent playing time in the outfield at the big-league level.

Mullins may struggle overall in his first full year in the majors, to the point where another young outfielder takes over centerfield duties at some point. He may struggle against southpaws, either limiting him to a platoon role or lead him to abandon hitting right-handed. If all goes well, though, and he has a decent or above-average first full season, it could make the torch passing to him from Jones an even more special moment in recent O’s history.

These are how multiple models on FanGraphs project Mullins for the 2019 season:

In any of these projected scenarios for the upcoming season, I think Mullins will keep his spot and make the majority of the starts in centerfield for the O’s.

He may need to perform a little better than those projections if he wishes to have security in there beyond 2019, however. He wasn’t regarded as a top prospect coming through the farm, either nationally or within the organization, but he exceeded expectations at each minor-league level.

He could continue to do that in the majors, but the talented Hays, Diaz and McKenna could creep up on him if he doesn’t take advantage of his opportunity to stake his claim on center this upcoming season. With the emergence of more skillful outfielders than starting spots available, it is important that Mullins — the first of the bunch to get a true opportunity — puts his best foot forward in 2019.

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