Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players who they hope will help reverse that before long.
The twice-weekly "One for the Future," which began last week with Futures Game participants Ryan Mountcastle and Alex Wells, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.
Next, a look at center fielder Cedric Mullins, who has been dynamic for long stretches of the past two seasons in the minors and appears on the cusp of his major league debut with the Orioles.
At 5 feet 8, Mullins knew his size would limit his role right away at a major college program, so he went to Louisburg College (N.C.) with a mindset that has carried him to the cusp of the majors: Get him a regular role, and he'll make an impact. His time at the junior college led him to Campbell University, and the Orioles made him their 13th-round pick in the 2015 draft.
He showed his speed (17 steals in 21 tries) and power (22 extra-base hits in 68 games) in his pro debut that summer for Short-A Aberdeen, and hit a unique set of statistical benchmarks in his full season at Low-A Delmarva. Mullins was the only minor leaguer in the Orioles’ system with double-digit doubles (37), triples (10), home runs (14) and steals (30) in 2016, all while batting .273 with a .785 OPS.
With his impressive defense as a spring training replacement, the Orioles skipped him a level, to Double-A Bowie, in 2017, where he got off to a torrid start. He missed time with a pair of hamstring injuries and cooled toward the end of the season, landing at .265/.316/.460 with 33 extra-base hits.
Since he ended up appearing in only 76 games at Bowie last year, the Orioles sent him back there this spring in hopes he could finish off the level and move on quickly. Once the weather turned in Maryland, so did he, hitting .313 with an .875 OPS and 23 extra-base hits in 49 games before his promotion to Triple-A Norfolk.
There, too, he had a slow start. No more. Mullins had a 15-game hitting streak end Monday, but after batting .321 in July, he's up to .279 at the level and is showing his gap power and speed as well. And, in what might be an indication of his Orioles future, 82 of 84 of Mullins' starts have come in center field, where he has above-average range and uses his speed to cut down the distance of his throws and help his arm play up.
How quickly will Mullins get to show all that in Baltimore? Center fielder Adam Jones knows he's "knocking on the door," and has already begun thinking about what it will look like when he cedes his position to Mullins.
There's certainly an appetite for it, both within the Orioles and to those who follow the team. Mullins has the defensive ability to make an immediate impact for a team that desperately needs outfield improvements, and while there's a lot of pop in his bat, especially from the left side, his ability to make contact and use his speed to affect games would refresh one of the most stale teams imaginable.
Going forward, however, Mullins will be an interesting case study in the two criteria on which Orioles prospects need to be evaluated. There used to be three, but quite honestly, it matters less and less how other teams view their prospects in terms of trade value; the Orioles don't look like they'll be buyers very soon.
That leaves two other vantage points: Can he make the team better now? And can he be a part of the Orioles’ eventual return to competitiveness in the loaded American League East?
For Mullins, the answer to the first question is certainly a yes. He'll be able to play solidly in center field, even if he would probably be an above-average defensive left fielder. Considering the other players the Orioles need in left field for lack of another position, that won't happen anytime soon.
He'll almost immediately start saving runs in the outfield, but his ability at the plate will determine his ultimate impact. He has overcome the stigma of being 5-8. Many evaluators’ impression of him changed once he skipped a level and didn't miss a beat. One lauded an "inherent quickness" that just can't be taught.
That goes for his hands, too, which produce a pop unusual for a smaller player. His quickness also explains his efficiency and productivity on the base path and in the outfield. But even internally, the Orioles know his usage will determine his effectiveness at the major league level. That’s where the second question comes in.
Considering how infrequently he gets to use his right-handed swing, his left-handed swing is far advanced. For now, it's fine to let him play every day and get used to big league life as the Orioles play out the string. He might, however, be best deployed in a platoon where he gets the looks against right-handed pitching and is available as a late-inning weapon off the bench and defensively once a left-handed starter comes out.
That calculation will determine where Mullins fits into the Orioles' long-term future. In the near term, he's playing in a way that makes his call-up imminent. It won't be long before he gets to show what he can do in the big leagues.