The Aaron Hicks’ era in Baltimore, however long it lasts, began yesterday with reports that the Orioles were close to reaching an agreement on a major league contract. An obvious counterpunch to losing Cedric Mullins to a groin injury. One that statistically doesn’t seem to pack much of a wallop.
Hicks was seen at Camden Yards, walking with executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias on the service level. Not long after that, the team announced the roster move.
The immediate reaction, a reflex assumption, was that Mullins would be lost for a considerable amount of time. Otherwise, just stick with Austin Hays and Ryan McKenna in center field, with a few infielders capable of handling the corners. Jorge Mateo can play center, too.
Bring up Joey Ortiz for infield depth. Select Daz Cameron’s contract and add a true center fielder.
Or, Aaron Hicks, who’s also a center fielder with 619 starts in the majors, along with 104 in left and 69 in right.
He isn’t in Mullins’ defensive league, but few can make that claim.
Mullins was a Gold Glove finalist in 2022. He’s making the spectacular seem routine again this season. Covering an enormous amount of ground, taking away home runs, getting nightly salutes from pitchers who appreciate the support - whether with a raised fist or cap.
“A special player,” said first base coach Anthony Sanders, who’s also the club’s outfield instructor. “I think anybody who’s been in the game as long as I have and guys who take pride in the outfield know what it looks like really quick. There are a few guys that separate themselves in the league, and talking to some of the young kids as they come up, we really pay attention to guys like that.”
Hays was running down everything last night and flashing that plus arm. The drop-off from Mullins to Hays isn’t concerning. But no one plays left the way he does and switching his position can create other problems.
Something along the lines of robbing Peter to pay Paul.
“Haysy, especially with the left field here, people don’t understand how hard it is to play it," Sanders said, "and he makes it look pretty easy out there."
Hicks took batting practice yesterday and didn’t crack the lineup. He could face right-hander Shane Bieber this afternoon, perhaps with Ryan McKenna back on the bench.
Being a switch-hitter allows Hicks to offer a contrast, but he actually has better numbers batting from the right side.
Hicks could be temporary, or he could stay for the longer haul. The price is right, with the Orioles paying only the prorated major league minimum salary and the Yankees stuck with the rest. Similar to Rougned Odor last year, when the Rangers handled the heavy payments.
So again, it’s a low-risk investment.
Also, Hicks isn’t blocking a prospect. Colton Cowser is on the seven-day injured list at Triple-A Norfolk with a left quad injury. Kyle Stowers also is on the IL. Heston Kjerstad isn’t making the jump from Double-A.
We might never know whether a healthy Cowser or Stowers would have prompted the Orioles to find a different replacement for Mullins. We might never know whether Elias would have deemed Cowser ready to debut at that moment, chosen Stowers or still gone with Hicks – a player that drew his interest before Mullins went down, though more for depth purposes.
I don’t know, but Cowser or Stowers would have provided a left-handed bat that the Orioles sought. Hicks’ offensive numbers have been declining, but he’s also the classic change-of-scenery guy. An escape from New York might be exactly what he needs. It’s helped plenty of others.
The Orioles won’t ride or die with him. He’s one of 26 and the Orioles don’t need him to play every day in center field. Hays and McKenna could get the bulk of that work. Manager Brandon Hyde is going to check matchups and take it one day at a time.
“They’re both plus defenders,” Sanders said of Hays and McKenna.
“Ryan McKenna is another true center fielder who can play all three that’s had to learn to play the role that he’s in. At times we basically have three center fielders out there, which is awesome.”
"That's the beauty of this team, I feel like," said starter Kyle Gibson. "We've got three guys that can play shortstop, and three guys that can play center field. Maybe more."
McKenna was on the bench last night but will get his share of starts against lefties in center, where he’s appeared in 48 games in the majors, including 11 as a sub. He’s also appeared in 98 in left and 76 in right. A communication mix up had McKenna in left for the first two outs in the ninth last night before swapping places with Hays.
“He’s done an unbelievable job in that role and he’s always ready,” Hays said. “He always puts together good at-bats off the bench. Plays a great defense coming in. Hadn’t been out there for eight innings. He’s done a great job doing that and it’s a tough role, but at the same time, he’s played a lot of games as a starter. So, if he steps in and he’s an everyday outfielder, he’s perfectly capable of doing that.
“We have a lot of depth here. Even our fourth outfielder is a solid starting outfielder. McKenna’s ready for any role he’s put in, in any position he's put in.”
Hays has been in Mullins’ position beyond the center field role. Forced onto the injured list and having to work himself back onto the active roster. Burying the disappointment and finding ways to spin the situation into a positive.
“It’s a really mentally testing time,” Hays said. “Only upside of it is you’re resting your body, you’re having to do a lot of things that are really good for your body to help you with your recovery. So, I think once you get past that initial point of, ‘I’m going to be out for some time,’ just focusing on using the time to make sure you’re getting your body as healthy as possible to come back and just be ready to play every single day. That’s how I always treated the injuries.
“It’s really hard at first, the first couple days dealing with it, and then you have to reset your mind, like, ‘OK, I’m going to use this time to really make my body as healthy as I can.’ But injuries are challenging.”
Especially when one claims Mullins. But the Orioles are moving ahead without him and happy to welcome him back when it's time.
"Who knows the actual timeline, I don't know what's been shared, so I don't want to get into too much of it," Gibson said. "Obviously a rest of the season absence is a lot different than what we're looking at. I think it's something that we can weather here in the short term. Obviously, Hicks is a really good player. I know him from previous years in Minnesota, so there's a relationship there. But Cedric's a tough player to replace.
"I don't think it's on Hicksy to come in and replace him or do anything special. If he's the best version of himself, then that's going to work for us."