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Slumping center fielder Cedric Mullins is too valuable for Orioles to give up on | ANALYSIS

Slumping center fielder Cedric Mullins is too valuable for Orioles to give up on | ANALYSIS

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The ball felt like it was in slow motion.

Cedric Mullins, engrossed in a brutal slump, squared up a ball at the plate — a rarity in recent weeks — and appeared headed for extra bases. Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Jonny DeLuca quickly closed the gap and dove for the line drive in the right-center field gap.

Given Mullins’ poor luck recently, which has exacerbated his frustrating skid, it almost seemed inevitable that DeLuca would make the web gem and end up on SportsCenter’s Top 10 on Sunday night.

But perhaps the tides are turning for Mullins, because the ball ricocheted off DeLuca’s glove and rolled to the warning track, allowing the Orioles speedster to sprint around second and glide into third with a triple.

“It felt like it stayed up for a long time when he had a chance at it,” Mullins said after the Orioles’ 9-2 win, their third straight versus the Rays. “It was huge for me to get that going.”

There is no reason to beat around the bush here: Mullins has been bad at the plate this season. The numbers, the underlying metrics, the eye test all show that. He’s hitting .178 and was 0-for-25 before his first of two hits Sunday.

But this much is just as clear: Mullins is simply too good, too valuable and too important to this team to give up on in June.

“Baseball’s a tough game because it’s just unlucky at times,” catcher Adley Rutschman said. “He’s been hitting the ball really hard at good angles and a lot of lineouts. Everyone knows it’s just a matter of time.”

To be clear, there is no easy solution here, although manager Brandon Hyde is trying everything in the book to solve it without the club having to do the unthinkable of sending Mullins, who does have a minor league option, to Triple-A Norfolk. This also doesn’t mean the goal must be for Mullins to be an everyday player or even one who starts against every right-handed pitcher. He might just be a role player for the remainder of the season, and that is OK. But the notion of banishing him to Norfolk or getting rid of him entirely is short-sighted.

“He’s working so hard,” said Hyde, who wrote Mullins’ name in his lineup card three straight days this weekend. “He’s hitting early every day. He’s putting everything into it, and he’s trying to find it. … We’re all pulling for him. If he can get going offensively for us, it totally changes things.”

Baltimore Orioles batter Cedric Mullins slams his helmet after breaking his bat following his strikeout against the Tampa Bay Rays while relief pitcher Dillon Tate heads back to the mound during an AL-East division game of Major League baseball at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Baltimore squandered a lead, failing to sweep with a 4-3 loss. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)
Orioles center fielder Cedric Mullins has been in a prolonged slump and is batting .178 on the season. (Karl Merton Ferron/Staff)

Mullins’ inclusion in lineups recently has been met with a chorus of moans from Orioles fans on social media who believe having a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder batting at the bottom of the order for a team on pace to win 106 games is somehow an affront to the sport of baseball. With Heston Kjerstad treating Triple-A pitching like it’s batting practice, Kyle Stowers mostly on Baltimore’s bench and other prospects waiting in the wings, Mullins is seen as one of the players blocking the youngsters who are banging on the door.

Perhaps that’s true, and perhaps it should be for now.

Mullins has three things none of his potential replacements have: plus defense in center field, the potential to swipe a bag at any moment and a track record of big league success.

Sure, the last time Mullins was a star player was three years ago when he posted the first 30-homer, 30-stolen base season in Orioles history and was a nearly six-win player by Baseball-Reference’s estimation of wins above replacement. But he was a four-win player in 2022, and he’s only a year removed from when he was Baltimore’s best player through the first two months of last season when he had an .835 OPS before his first groin injury.

Over the past calendar year, Mullins has hit .192 with a paltry .581 OPS across 426 plate appearances, although his performance for most of last summer was close to league average. He entered Sunday with an OPS+ of 52, meaning his performance at the plate is approximately 48% worse than league average.

“The mental component is huge,” co-hitting coach Ryan Fuller said. “You want these guys to have confidence, but it’s hard to have confidence when you’re not having results. The best way to get that confidence back is to take action every day, prove it to yourself in small ways until it shows up on the field.”

The 29-year-old began the season hot with six home runs and an .833 OPS in his first 21 games, but he entered Sunday 12-for-109 (.110) with a .329 OPS since.

“Yeah, it’s been tough,” Mullins said of the slump. “Being that it’s a long season, it is a matter of getting your mind right. Once you feel like your mechanics are in sync for the most part, it’s a matter of getting that mental down, trying not to put too much on yourself. You go out there and play your game.”

Mullins isn’t the only veteran outfielder to slump this season for Baltimore. Austin Hays, an All-Star last year, scuffled to begin the year, but he’s broken out and imbued confidence in his future value to the Orioles this season. Two weeks ago, Hays was hitting .164 with a .430 OPS. Since, he’s gone 7-for-17 with three doubles and two home runs.

“We’re not performing like we’ve always performed,” Hays said during the Orioles’ most recent homestand. “We haven’t done what’s expected of us, and we need to play better. We’re going to. … I wish we were playing better right now, but we’re not. We need to step up for this team, and we’re going to. That’s just how we’re going to continue to look at it.”

Even without Hays and Mullins performing for most of this season, the Orioles are a force to be reckoned with. They are one of the best teams in the major leagues, and with the way they’re playing, it’s not inconceivable for them to end the season as the sport’s best.

The Orioles are good enough to let Mullins climb out of the quicksand he’s stuck in. He’s been too good in the past not to continue giving him that opportunity.

“When you go into that cave when it’s dark, you don’t know how long you’re going to be in there,” Fuller said. “If you stay in there long enough, you’re usually going to find that light that comes out at the other side.”

Orioles at Rays

Monday, 6:50 p.m.


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