Should Colton Cowser be the everyday centerfielder for the Orioles?

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles
Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

As Cedric Mullins continues to struggle at the plate, real concerns have risen over whether he is the right choice to man center field on a daily basis for the rest of the season. Is it time for Colton Cowser to take over in that role for the Baltimore Orioles?

After struggling in a brief 2023 stint, Cowser came into 2024 on fire, becoming one of the hottest hitters in the sport in the month of April, and solidified himself as an everyday option in an already stacked Orioles outfield.

That start also solidified Cowser as a fan favorite in Baltimore as puns based on his last name inspired many cow and milk themed outfits, as well as a signature "moo" chant every time he steps up to the plate. Despite recent offensive struggles, fans have continued to rally behind Cowser as a section of Camden Yards was turned into "the pasture" on Tuesday night with fans dressing in anything from cow onesies to milkmen costumes to show support.

His emergence also comes at a time when another fan favorite, Cedric Mullins, continues to struggle at the plate and has simply been one of the least productive hitters in the American League. A replacement in center field may be necessary for the Orioles to churn as many wins as possible in a division where every game will matter if they want to overcome the red-hot New York Yankees and win the AL East for a second year in a row.

On the season, Mullins has played in 60 games with a .174/.222/.310 slash line, good for a 54 OPS+ and .532 OPS. Those numbers just won't help a team that has seen production from many hitters and has emerged as one of the best offenses in the league.

Just recently, Mullins broke an 0-for-23 streak which dropped his batting average well below the Mendoza line. Additionally, Mullins has drawn only 11 walks while striking out 51 times, as his struggles bring back memories of 2019 when he had a -9 OPS+ in 22 games before being demoted early in the season (he would not return until 2020). In that case, the Orioles had no true backup option but also no real expectations of competing, as Stevie Wilkerson ended up spending most of the season in center field while Keon Broxton, Anthony Santander, and a young Austin Hays helped out too.

Defense has always been a calling card for Mullins. He naturally patrols center field and has been a ready heir to Adam Jones because he makes spectacular web gem plays on a weekly basis. Over the past few seasons, advanced stats have supported the claim that Mullins is a great defender — he combined for 10.6 defensive value on Fangraphs between 2021 and 2022. In those two seasons, he also recorded an impressive 20 outs above average, while 2022 was his best defensive season with a career-high 3.8 ultimate zone rating (he also set a career high in fielding run value).

Since 2022, however, he has lost a step defensively as his fielding run value dropped to four in 2023 and his defensive value was barely positive at 0.6. So far this season, Mullins' defensive value stands at 0.4 while his UZR is at 0.1. In 453 innings, he has recorded only two outs above average, which is fewer than his totals in 2019 and 2020 in far fewer innings each season. Simply put, his defense is no longer elite, which can't justify everyday playing time without any offensive output.

For Cowser, 2024 has been a strong offensive season with some peaks and valleys. Overall, Cowser has had a solid slash line at .230/.321/.417 with a 115 OPS+ and .738 OPS in 63 games. The plate discipline and occassional power continue to be productive even while he struggles to get on base consistently with contact. He has also played all three outfield positions, which was a focal point during his development as the O's wanted to have the ability to plug him in anywhere in the outfield.

Cowser has cooled off significantly at the plate since a hot April. In May, Cowser started 23 games with a .188/.305/.275 slash line. These struggles have continued into June where he currently has a .161 batting average and .493 OPS. Over the last 28 days, he has a .203 average and .612 OPS. These offensive struggles are certainly concerning because struggles also align with how often he plays center field. As a center fielder this season, his batting average is a mere .159 with a .547 OPS. In all, the past month and a half has been just as unkind offensively to Cowser as Mullins. Neither player can solidify themselves as solid options in the lineup.

All of this was written before the game on Wednesday night against Atlanta, when Mullins went 2-for-3 with a double and Cowser came off the bench and hit the game-winning two-run homer off of Joe Jimenez. Despite the offensive struggles, both players had strong games, which is a glimpse into their capabilities and reasons why they are on the roster in the first place. However, that doesn't change the overall tenor here.

In his first full major league season, Cowser has proven himself as a force defensively in all three outfield positions. Overall, he has accumulated 7.1 defensive value, according to Fangraphs with most of his time coming in the corner spots. He has spent 315 innings in left field where he has accumulated a 0.9 ultimate zone rating and six outs above average. His fielding run value and range factor are also at six, which is an impressive number for how much time he has spent in left field.

As a center fielder, Cowser still impresses. He has accumulated similar range, outs above average, and ultimate zone rating as Mullins, but in fewer innings. Cowser struggled defensively in center in 2023 when he had the opportunity to man the position with Mullins on the injured list, but his improvements in every statistical category prove that he is ready to take the next step and become a full-time center fielder.

Outside of Cowser and Mullins, there aren't too many internal options to play center field. The only other players in Baltimore with any experience are Austin Hays and Jorge Mateo. Hays has only 53 career starts in center field and has not played more than 100 innings at the position since 2020. Mateo only recently began taking reps in center field and his talents seem more suited for the middle infield where he has proven himself to be a Gold Glove-caliber defensive player at both shortstop and second base. Another past option was Ryan McKenna, but he is no longer in the organization as he has taken his talents to the Bay Area for the Giants.

Externally, the trade deadline is fast approaching and there should be some options to fill a potential offensive hole at center field. Most notably, Luis Robert of the White Sox is on the trade block and would certainly bolster the Orioles lineup even further as he made an All-Star Game and Home Run Derby appearance in 2023. Needless to say, it would take a hefty load of prospects to bring in Robert but his presence would undoubtedly improve the current situation in center field as the Orioles pursue a World Series.

Neither Cowser nor Mullins have played well offensively over the past several months which does create a bit of a hole in an otherwise strong lineup. However, it is pretty clear that Cowser has outplayed Mullins on both sides of the ball all season and is more than capable of holding down center field. Moving Cowser to the everyday center field role, given the current personnel, seems to be the best decision the Orioles can make at the moment (or before they make trade deadline decisions).