Cedric Mullins has been in this position before.
After an impressive spell at the end of the 2018 season, he had a firm grasp on the Orioles' center field job, only to fall apart in 2019 and lose it. After playing well down the stretch in 2020, Mullins is in a similar spot. This time, he feels as if everything he did to rebuild himself will put him in a much better place entering spring training.
“I think on a maturity standpoint, I know how I’m going to approach that time in spring training — just embracing that I have a solid shot, but I do have some competition,” Mullins said.
Mullins' up-and-down journey back to this point, one he’s familiar with, has been difficult at times for both he and the Orioles. When he held his own in that 2018 call-up as the center field heir to Adam Jones, much was expected of him as one of the young faces of the Orioles' rebuild in 2019, the first year under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde.
Looking back, Mullins believes he prepared for that season wrong and never got into a groove. He was 6-for-64 as the Orioles' everyday center fielder before being demoted to Triple-A Norfolk, and when it didn’t get better there, he was at Double-A Bowie by the All-Star break.
Mullins settled things and got back to himself down the stretch with the Baysox, and went to work with hitting guru Rick Strickland outside St. Louis in the early part of the offseason to try and rebuild his swing.
The 26-year-old switch-hitter spent two weeks there, taking some time to get used to the data-driven processes and determine what he wanted to get out of the work. It was geared, ultimately, to “obtaining a more consistent barrel with your at-bats,” Mullins said.
His swing now features a leg-kick, but the feeling he spent carrying through the 2020 season was a familiar one.
“Over time, between time spent in 2018 and 2019, I had lost that feeling,” Mullins said. “It was a matter of me breaking down and starting from square one to figure out I can get back this feeling to get in a strong position and give me the best chance to hit the ball hard.”
The changes were clear to Mullins and the Orioles coaches in spring training, even if the results weren’t there. He knew he’d likely start the year in the minors, but wanted to erase the poor impression from a year before.
“Coming back after that year, there was a lot of positive that came out of the spring training,” Mullins said. “They said my swing looks really good, I was able to make adjustments pretty quickly. It was just a matter of getting my timing back. It’s a brand new swing, and to try to replicate that as much as you can before you have to go into a season was probably the hardest part, especially when you have to go into the season at the highest level.
"But the turning point I think was during the spring training where even if I wasn’t having the success early, my at-bats still looked completely different.”
Mullins was optioned to Norfolk after spring training was cut short but ended up making the team after the season restarted from the COVID-19 pandemic anyway. His bat never came around, though, and he was sent to the secondary camp in Bowie for some more consistent at-bats and opportunities to work on his swing.
He was summoned back after his close friend Austin Hays had to go on the injured list with a fractured rib he’d tried to play through for over a week. When Mullins rejoined the team and saw Hays in the training room, Hays' message was clear.
“He basically was telling me in that moment, this is your opportunity," Mullins said. "Do what you do and make it happen.”
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Mullins was happy to oblige. He came back from the Bowie camp swinging a hot bat, hitting .291 with a .796 OPS after his call-up. But what meant the most to him was Hyde’s declaration in the middle of September that Mullins was worthy of Gold Glove consideration for his defense in center field.
“It was awesome to hear Hyde bring me up in the Gold Glove conversation,” Mullins said. “It didn’t even cross my mind that that was a possibility until he said that, and it created this atmosphere around the clubhouse, like, ‘This is awesome.’ You’ve got guys cheering me on and just hoping that I can make things happen.”
Hitting coach Don Long also singled Mullins out for praise at the end of the year, noting that he’d really improved from the left side while his right-handed swing was a work in progress. Still, he said Mullins' ability and willingness to bunt his way on base showed what kind of player he was.
“He’s really shown a lot of progress,” Long said. “You can see it in his demeanor and personality, he’s a lot more expressive this year. He’s not holding back. He feels comfortable being who he is, and he’s certainly played excellent on defense.”
Mullins, having been through this before, knows he needs to continue to improve in the offseason and arrive in Sarasota, Florida, in February ready to win a job. With Ryan Mountcastle now in left field on a regular basis and Anthony Santander expected back healthy in right field, he and Hays could be competing for center field time with one another.
He recognizes, though, that the work he’s shown as a hitter has allowed him to take some pressure off himself on that front and continue to focus on other aspects of his game.
“Now that I’ve been able to make progressions in that, there’s a touch on the hitting, continuing to improve on that, but how do I become a better base stealer? How do I become a better runner?” Mullins said. "I’m able to focus on more aspects and not just have to solely worry about just trying to get on base at the plate.”