The closer we get to the start of spring training, with the first Orioles workout set for Feb. 13, the fewer chances exist for manager Brandon Hyde to escape the inevitable lineup questions.
Hyde has been studying and learning about the personnel in the organization, taking private courses in December during his flights to and from Maui and extending them through the following month. He’s watching video, sifting through reports and placing phone calls. Anything to get up to speed after his late hiring.
It’s probably a safe assumption that he hasn’t penned his starting nine for the exhibition opener, though he already might have a few ideas for the top of his order on March 28 at Yankee Stadium.
Mullins made 43 starts after his August promotion and batted first in 37 of them while former manager Buck Showalter eased him into the role. He went 31-for-149 (.208) with five doubles, four home runs, 13 walks and a .280 on-base percentage.
A hot August, with a .317/.386/.556 slash line in 18 games, didn’t hold up over the final month. The rookie batted .187/.269/.243 in his last 27 games.
Villar led off in 20 games this season and batted .286/.344/.357 in 94 plate appearances. He’s a career .266/.338/.411 hitter in 1,170 plate appearances atop the order and .207/.290/.330 in 204 plate appearances in the second slot.
Mullins has tremendous speed, but Villar’s basestealing skills are more mature. He swiped 62 bags with the Brewers in 2016 to lead the majors and was 35-for-40 last summer, including 21-for-24 with the Orioles. He takes risks that can backfire, especially at third base, but his new club liked his aggression and the pressure applied to opposing pitchers and defenses.
There’s a prime opportunity for Mullins to be the student and absorb whatever instruction and advice Villar can offer. The process already began to unfold last summer.
“Even during the back half of the season, it was a matter of sitting down with him, having those one-on-one talks, just figuring out who I am as a baserunner, as a baseball player in general. And he was able to adapt to that and talk to me about what he did versus what I can do to help improve my baserunning ability, as well,” Mullins said during last Thursday’s “Hot Stove Show” on 105.7 The Fan.
“He has a great approach with that, and him going through the season stealing as many bags as he did, I’m the type of guy to go up to him and talk to him right as a situation has happened. What were your thoughts on this? And he’s immediately given me feedback.”
Batting second requires a different approach at the plate. Having the patience to lay off a pitch and giving the leadoff guy a chance to move into scoring position.
“That was one of the things we talked about,” said Mullins, who was 2-for-5 on attempted steals with the Orioles and a combined 21-for-22 with Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk.
“I do remember a scenario when that happened. He took two pitches that were both strikes and we both kind of gave each other a look, and after the situation was said and done, I think he ended up hitting a single that time around. But he was like, ‘Hey, I’m giving you an opportunity to get your bags and also an opportunity to get you in scoring position, so when I put a ball in the outfield you’re able to score on that.’ So I just got a feeling for the aggressiveness that he wanted me to have on the bases, and I can take that from last year and work it into this season.”
The Orioles have been a plodding team for years. Going station to station and living on the long ball. Just the way they’ve been built. You can’t execute many double steals with a roster full of corner infielders and designated hitters. But Mullins has the wheels to get the Orioles up to speed.
Hyde just has to find the best ways to utilize them.
“I love having speed,” said Mullins, named the organization’s Minor League Player of the Year in 2018. “That’s one of my tools, that’s one of my assets on the field. I can just create a lot of opportunities for the guys behind me if I’m in the leadoff position and I get on base. Being able to get in scoring position and just putting pressure on the other team.
“Those are things that I’ve grown up learning how to do, and it’s a continuous learning curve. Getting called up to the bigs, the pitchers are a little smarter, they hold the ball a little longer. So it’s a matter of making sure that I’m continuing to learn off them and figuring out the jumps and the timing and certain pitch counts that are good to run on. It’s always a learning curve.”
Now I’m wondering who would play Mullins in the film “Trouble with the Learning Curve.” But I digress ...
There’s bound to be an infusion of young talent on a rebuilding club, the process beginning to take hold after last summer’s non-waiver trade deadline. Mullins, 24, and his prospect status are the right fit. He has to make the club out of spring training, of course, but so far there isn’t a better option in center field.
He has plenty of time to improve his minus-0.4 dWAR. And the increased use of analytics could assist him, especially with arm strength one of the tools that are lacking.
“I’ve heard a lot of great things about Brandon and Mike (Elias). I’m looking forward to working with them pretty soon,” Mullins said.
“I understand the importance of a veteran situation, but I do know that we’re going to bring a lot of energy to the field regardless, and we’re going to be the grinders and we’re going to take it to them this season. And just continue to work hard and battle throughout the whole year.”