Long before Cedric Mullins became the Orioles' center fielder of the future — let alone the first in what they hope is a wave of blossoming young talent to join a team that desperately needs it — there was an exchange that stuck with the dynamic, then-junior college outfielder.
"I want to give you a shot," Orioles scout Rich Morales told him.
"That's all I want," the switch-hitting Mullins said.
As Mullins, 23, recalled that conversation last spring with Double-A Bowie, where he was on a tear that made the major league call he received Friday seem imminent before a severe hamstring injury wrecked that chance a year ago, he was fulfilling all the promise of a defensive center fielder who could impact every phase of the game — and had proven it at every level.
Now that he's done that at Triple-A Norfolk, too, there's nothing left for Mullins to do but carry the banner for an entire generation of Orioles prospects who fans are clamoring for after so many beloved stars were traded.
His exciting brand of baseball — and the fire that fuels it — arrived Friday because of his drive to make good on that chance.
“It was a bet-on-myself moment that if I just continued to preserve and they gave me that shot, the door would slowly open,” Mullins said. “I came into spring training, and was just being told, ‘Break through the wall. Break the door down.’ That was my mindset going into this season.”
It’s one he’s been familiar with for his entire career, and a concept that he successfully executed wherever he got a chance to suit up.
Coming out of high school in the Atlanta area, where he grew up watching Andruw Jones in his prime and decided straight away that baseball was what he wanted to do for a living, the 5-foot-8 Mullins knew his size would be a factor even at the college level. Unsure of how it would translate, Mullins went to a junior college, Louisburg, in North Carolina to play regularly and grow into his game. He played there for two years before getting a chance at nearby Campbell University.
He said he had weaned himself onto that junior college mindset, but once he did, it was worth it.
"When you made it to a D-I school, it just took a little longer, right?" he said.
Once he did that, Campbell coach Justin Haire had a player who fit what he wanted to do perfectly.
"Cedric is really athletic, and we’re a program that likes to run and steal bases and get on and we’re really at our best when we’ve got somebody at the top of the lineup who can put pressure on the defense," Haire said. "That’s what we saw in Cedric, a dynamic guy at the top of the lineup who at the very least is going to be able to run. At junior college, he had some power numbers and hit some balls for extra bases, but you don’t know how it’s going to translate. ... There was some bat speed there, and barrel awareness, but really, it was the athleticism."
He put that all together for the Camels that year, with a .340 batting average, 34 extra-base hits and 23 steals in 56 games. It was more than enough for Morales and the Orioles.
"It’s just a matter of you only need one person who loves you," Mullins said. "I was able to run into that scout at my junior college, who followed me up to Campbell."
The Orioles drafted Mullins in the 13th round in 2015, and he spent his first full season in 2016 becoming one of a select number of minor leaguers to hit double-digit doubles (37), triples (10), home runs (14) and steal double-digit bases (30) while at Low-A Delmarva.
At the time, manager Ryan Minor said Mullins' quiet but mature approach made it so it never seemed like he was doing anything extraordinary over a full season in the South Atlantic League.
"Then, you look up at the end of the year and see his numbers, everything just kind of jumped out at you," Minor said.
What always stood out about Mullins, though, was his defense. Haire said he could have gone straight from Campbell to Camden Yards and held his own as a fourth outfielder who came off the bench for defensive purposes. Minor said during that first full season, he had a knack for being in the right place.
And once the Orioles got some looks at him as an extra player in major league spring training in 2017, first base coach Wayne Kirby and manager Buck Showalter saw someone who was so calm and quiet in the field that they knew there was potential there.
So the Orioles jumped him over High-A Frederick and Mullins tore through the first few weeks at Bowie. He homered in his first at-bat of the season and was hitting .367 with a 1.090 OPS before he injured his hamstring hauling down the first base line on a wet field.
He didn't return until June, and was still hitting .318 a month later when the injury returned. Mullins came back a few weeks later only to scuffle in August and end the year batting .265.
None of that soured the Orioles, who brought Mullins to major league camp as a nonroster invitee and kept him through the final game of the spring, such was his reliability. His locker was beside center fielder Adam Jones, and the two sized each other up in a sense. Mullins had watched Jones from afar and admired how he went about his business. Jones recently delivered a similar endorsement for Mullins.
Mullins began the season back at Bowie, and heated up with the weather there before going to Norfolk and polishing off the last requirement on his resume. With Jones' declining defense and the Orioles’ plummeting performance, outside attention turned to debuting some younger players quickly this season. Mullins was always among the first names mentioned.
While the likes of one-time top prospects Chance Sisco and Austin Hays have already made their major league debuts before going back to the minors, there's a sense among Mullins' peers that he's exactly the type of player this growing wave of young players wants representing them as the first homegrown prospect summoned since the rebuild began.
"I don't know if there's anyone more deserving," Hays said. "He's doing a great job, and I think he's very deserving of it. I think that he plays really good defense, he's a great base runner and I think the organization has a lot of trust in him as well, too. It would mean a lot to me — he was my roommate here, he's one of my good friends in the organization, so I'd be really happy to see him blossom up there and get his opportunity."
Showalter said Mullins could be an ideal person to introduce the Orioles’ fans to the next wave of players coming up.
“I think so,” Showalter said. “I hope so. Potentially. He’s hitting .260-something in Triple-A. I love the total package. If you look at doubles, and you look at triples, you look at stolen bases and stolen base percentage, you look at pop, you look at runs, Cedric — he’s an old-school bunter. He’s a guy who shows it late.
“They can be on top of you and he still has a chance. He’s made improvements from the right side of the plate. He’s gotten better each year. If you look at the totals, impactful things, he has a chance to be one of those guys. And he’s going to get an opportunity.”