Who stays and who goes when Cedric Mullins and Aaron Hicks return to Orioles lineup?

The Orioles have important roster decisions to make with returns on the horizon

Star centerfielder Cedric Mullins is set to rejoin the Orioles on Friday night in Seattle.
Star centerfielder Cedric Mullins is set to rejoin the Orioles on Friday night in Seattle. / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

Amid a chaotic week, featuring the Orioles losing the first two games of a three-game series against the Astros and controversial owner John Angelos inexplicably suspending terrific broadcaster Kevin Brown for no reason, the Orioles received a bit of good news on Wednesday when they announced the imminent returns of sorely missed outfielders Cedric Mullins and Aaron Hicks. Mullins is expected to return tomorrow night in Seattle, while Hicks is expected back for next week's series in San Diego against the Padres.

While the Orioles have continued their winning ways despite losing Mullins and Hicks, their centerfield offense has certainly dipped since their injuries against Miami and in Philadelphia, respectively. Mullins, who also missed over three weeks with an injury back in late May/early June, had posted a strong .801 OPS before going down, while Hicks had amassed a similarly solid .784 OPS with the Orioles.

In their stead, the Orioles used struggling rookie Colton Cowser, struggling shortstop Jorge Mateo, backup outfielder Ryan McKenna, and left fielder Austin Hays in the middle of the outfield. Since Hicks went down during the Phillies series, Orioles' centerfielders have posted a cringeworthy .132 batting average to go along with 0 home runs and 3 RBIs. Cowser is 0-14 in four starts in centerfield since July 26 (the finale against Philadelphia) The combined OPS of the centerfielders used by the Orioles is just .386.

The biggest question looming is how the Orioles will fit both Mullins and Hicks back onto the 26-man roster. Three players appear to be on the roster bubble, two of which will likely go down: Jorge Mateo, Ryan McKenna, and Colton Cowser. This article will briefly consider each player's current role on the team and the likely outcome at this mid-August roster crunch.

Who stays and who goes with Aaron Hicks and Cedric Mullins about to make their returns?

1. Jorge Mateo - SS/CF

Jorge Mateo
Houston Astros v Baltimore Orioles / Scott Taetsch/GettyImages

Jorge Mateo has had an uneven year, to say the least. Notwithstanding the Orioles crowded infield picture to start the year (Mateo, Gunnar Henderson, Adam Frazier, and Ramon Urias) Mateo drew most of the starts at shortstop in April and posted an elite 1.043 OPS. As good as Mateo was in April, he was just as bad in May, June, and July, posting OPS's of .316, .500, and .488, respectively. He hit six home runs in April and zero since. With the promotion of Jordan Westburg, Mateo's starts have become fewer and further between.

In order to get him into the lineup, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde started Mateo in centerfield in Tuesday night's opener against Houston. Mateo wasn't great, failing to reel in Yordan Alvarez's long fly ball in the ninth, which led to Kyle Tucker's game-winning grand slam.

Unlike McKenna and Cowser, Jorge Mateo is out of options. The Orioles cannot send him to the minors without first designating him for assignment, giving all 29 other teams a chance to claim him on waivers.

Like the Orioles in 2021, some team will see the 1.043 OPS, the speed, and the putatively "untapped" potential and take a shot on him. While Mateo has struggled, he is a valuable pinch runner, a solid defender at shortstop, and can now apparently play centerfield.

Prediction: Mateo should stay with the Orioles when Mullins and Hicks come back, where he will see time as a pinch runner and occasional starter at shortstop.

2. Colton Cowser - OF

Colton Cowser
Baltimore Orioles v Toronto Blue Jays / Vaughn Ridley/GettyImages

Colton Cowser is the Orioles' second-best prospect (behind Jackson Holliday) for a reason. He was the fifth pick in the 2021 draft, he mashed at every level in the minor leagues, and is a terrific hitter. When the Orioles called Cowser up on July 5, 2023, the expectation was he was here to stay.

But it just has not worked out for Cowser at the Major League level yet. Even with the losses of Mullins and Hicks, Cowser has received inconsistent playing time and struggled to a brutal .117 batting average and .420 OPS. Renowned in the minors as a terrific contact hitter, Cowser has struck out 22 times in 60 at bats.

While the Orioles should, and likely would, keep playing him until he gets out of his slump, there is simply no room for him with Mullins' and Hicks' returns. I still believe in Cowser, but a return to Triple-A to reset may be just what he needs. He'll be back.

I also think the Orioles will option Cowser before McKenna to get him back to regular at bats with Norfolk as soon as possible, and also because both he and Mullins are left-handed hitters.

Prediction: The Orioles option Colton Cowser to AAA Norfolk on Friday when Mullins returns.

3. Ryan McKenna - OF

Ryan McKenna
New York Yankees v Baltimore Orioles / G Fiume/GettyImages

The Orioles called McKenna up to replace Aaron Hicks back in July. Now with Hicks set to return for the Orioles' three game set in San Diego, the two will likely switch place again. McKenna has drawn the majority of the starts in centerfield since July 26 but, as has been the case with him during his Major League career, has not gotten his bat going.

He has only a .411 OPS in 20 plate appearances this month and has only one extra-base hit and one RBI since rejoining the Orioles on July 25. McKenna is a solid fourth or fifth outfielder, but with the roster crunch, and with McKenna having options (unlike Mateo), he is likely to return to Triple-A upon Hicks' return.

Prediction: The Orioles option Ryan McKenna to AAA Norfolk when Aaron Hicks returns.

It has been a rough week. The Orioles are 0-2 and their owner somehow found a way to embarrass himself and the organization even though the Orioles are having their best season in years. The incredible Felix Bautista proved that he is indeed human, taking a brutal blown save on Tuesday.

But help is on the way in the form of Cedric Mullins and Aaron Hicks, bringing the Orioles back to full strength for the final 6-7 weeks of the regular season. The Orioles, as well as their fans, pray that the return of these players can dispel the unfortunate and unnecessary stench that has been created around the team over the last 72 hours. Buckle up.