Orioles activate Mullins from injured list to begin West Coast trip in Seattle

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Beginning their three-city West Coast trip in Seattle, the first-place Orioles welcomed back one of their best players on Friday.

After missing nearly four weeks of action for the second time this season because of a groin injury, center fielder Cedric Mullins was activated from the injured list and expected to be in the starting lineup for the first time since July 15. The 28-year-old was deemed ready to return after a four-game rehab assignment with Double-A Bowie. Mullins went just 3-for-20 at the plate with the Baysox, but he made a couple sparkling defensive plays, which spoke favorably about his speed and mobility after recovering from a right adductor groin strain.

Mullins missed close to a month after suffering the initial groin injury on Memorial Day. He struggled in his return to the Orioles lineup in late June, but his bat came alive shortly before the All-Star break and he had clubbed his first home run since May 23 the night before re-injuring his groin on July 15. Not wanting to risk another setback this late in a season very likely to include October baseball, the Orioles must be cautious with Mullins in his return to major league action.

“This last [groin injury] was a little different in that it started in a different spot and then it kind of moved,” manager Brandon Hyde said Wednesday. “I definitely want to keep him as healthy as I possibly can, so probably talking to him every day, day games after night games — things like that. I might have to give him some rest to make sure he’s fresh.

“I don’t want to hurt him. We need him, so I want to try to keep him as healthy as I can.”

The 2021 All-Star selection and Silver Slugger Award winner was arguably Baltimore’s best player over the first two months of the season, so his healthy return could prove extremely valuable for a club entering Friday with the AL’s best record. In 290 plate appearances this season, Mullins is batting .259 with 28 extra-base hits, 47 runs batted in, 14 stolen bases, and an .801 on-base plus slugging percentage.

To make room for Mullins on the 26-man roster, the Orioles optioned reserve outfielder Ryan McKenna to Triple-A Norfolk. Baltimore also recalled left-handed pitcher Nick Vespi, giving Hyde a second lefty in the bullpen to go with Cionel Perez after Danny Coulombe was placed on the 15-day IL with left biceps tendinitis on Thursday. The Orioles optioned right-hander Joey Krehbel to Norfolk to make room for Vespi and plan to move lefty long reliever Cole Irvin to the starting rotation for the time being.

Mullins may not be the only veteran outfielder to rejoin the Orioles in the coming days as Aaron Hicks began a rehab assignment with the Tides on Friday. On the 10-day IL with a left hamstring strain since July 25, Hicks has batted .252 with six homers, 20 RBIs, and a .784 OPS in 152 plate appearances since signing with Baltimore in late May. If his stint with Norfolk goes smoothly, the 33-year-old could join the Orioles in San Diego next week.

While optioning McKenna to make room for Mullins was the easy choice, activating Hicks could force a more difficult decision such as demoting outfielder Colton Cowser, one of the organization’s top prospects who’s struggled since making his major league debut in early July. Cowser is just 7-for-60 with two doubles and 11 walks over his first 74 plate appearances in the majors, but the organization remains high on the 2021 first-round pick’s future and wouldn’t have called him up without designs of him helping a playoff push. Barring an injury or going to a 12-man pitching staff, the only other plausible alternative would be designating the speedy Jorge Mateo for assignment, something the organization has appeared unwilling to do despite his dramatic struggles at the plate since the first month of the season.

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