Roster tweaks loom for Orioles with Mullins, Mountcastle on rehab assignments

- Advertisement -

The Orioles are no strangers to roster tweaks, but Cedric Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle beginning rehab assignments this week prompts the question of what moves might come next.

Especially with their primary replacements — Aaron Hicks and Ryan O’Hearn — having played so well in their absence. 

Arguably the club’s most valuable player at the time of his groin strain on May 29, Mullins will obviously be welcomed back with open arms as the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter, but Hicks has enjoyed an impressive renaissance after being released by the New York Yankees in late May and signed by Baltimore the day after Mullins’ injury. What felt like a very unsettling development for the Orioles at the time has been eased —and then some — by the 33-year-old playing like the above-average player he was in the Bronx several years ago. 

Since May 31, Hicks ranks 17th among qualified major league hitters in weighted on-base average, 12th in weighted runs created, and 11th in wins above replacement, according to FanGraphs. The switch-hitting outfielder has reached base in all but two starts for the Orioles, posting a .321 average with three home runs, three doubles, 10 walks, and a .996 on-base plus slugging percentage in 66 plate appearances. 

One wouldn’t expect that degree of success to continue, of course, but the Orioles aren’t about to jettison a veteran outfielder playing at such a high level either. The better short-term question will be how manager Brandon Hyde keeps Hicks in the lineup, which could involve moving him to right field and using Anthony Santander as the designated hitter more often.  

But which player on the current roster will go to make room for Mullins? 

Optioning the 28-year-old Josh Lester is the most logical move for whichever rehabbing player is ready to return first, but the presence of Hicks also makes Ryan McKenna’s reserve outfield role less vital. The 26-year-old does have a minor-league option remaining. 

This brings us to Mountcastle, who’s been sidelined since June 8 with a bout of vertigo. While not dismissing the potential impact of that condition on his performance before he was placed on the injured list, it’s no secret that the 26-year-old’s plate discipline has been a bigger problem than ever this season. According to FanGraphs, Mountcastle is swinging at a career-high percentage of pitches outside the strike zone in addition to sporting a career-worst .264 on-base percentage and walking a career-low 4.6% of the time. With that lack of on-base ability and his defensive limitations, Mountcastle really has to rake at the plate to justify an everyday spot in the lineup. 

That reality is only magnified by the performance of O’Hearn, who’s reminded a little of a left-handed version of Steve Pearce from 2014 with a .341 average, six homers, seven doubles, and a .993 OPS in 98 plate appearances. Like with Hicks, you wouldn’t expect the 29-year-old O’Hearn to continue that success, but could that allow the Orioles to take their time with Mountcastle’s rehab assignment to try to get him to make better swing decisions and at least get his plate discipline back to where it was in previous seasons? 

At the very least, Mountcastle automatically returning to an everyday role over the hot-swinging O’Hearn isn’t justified until the latter cools considerably, meaning a platoon could be in order. 

Of course, these roster questions don’t even consider infielder Jordan Westburg and outfielder Colton Cowser, two prospects deserving of a promotion from Triple-A Norfolk sooner than later. Considering the struggles of shortstop Jorge Mateo and second baseman Adam Frazier as regulars, Westburg in particular seems overdue for his chance in the majors. Then again, the Orioles haven’t given much of an opportunity to rookie infielder Joey Ortiz, and he’s already on the 26-man roster.  

For now, we’ll see how general manager Mike Elias proceeds with the roster with Mullins and Mountcastle nearing their returns. And we’ll remember these are good problems to have for a club sporting the fourth-best record in the majors in late June. 

- Advertisement -