BALTIMORE — Watching Adam Jones trot out to right field for the Orioles was strange on Friday night.
It was the first time the longtime center fielder had started a game there since Sept. 25, 2007 when he was a 22-year-old still establishing himself in the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners. The last player to roam center field for the Orioles before Jones was acquired ahead of the 2008 season was Tike Redman, who filled in for injured veteran Corey Patterson over the final weeks of 2007.
A long time ago.
Of course, making room for rookie center fielder Cedric Mullins was the right move. If Cal Ripken once shifted to third base for Manny Alexander — albeit briefly — Jones could certainly make room for the talented 23-year-old, who was 3-for-4 with two doubles and two runs batted in in his major league debut. It’s a credit to Jones for the manner in which he’s handled himself over these last few tumultuous weeks. After invoking his 10-and-5 right to decline a trade to Philadelphia last month, the 33-year-old not only moved off his longtime position with grace, but he’s serving as a mentor to the former 13th-round pick from Campbell University.
Those who had criticized Jones’ decision in fear of his presence hindering Mullins’ development were reminded of the team player he’s always been.
The move could also help prolong Jones’ time as a productive player, either in Baltimore or elsewhere at the end of the season. It’s no secret the four-time Gold Glove center fielder’s range had diminished in recent years as he entered Friday ranking next to last among major league center fielders in defensive runs saved (minus-18). No longer facing the physical demands of covering so much ground in center — especially with so many inferior corner outfielders flanking him in recent years — Jones could look to former All-Star center fielder Torii Hunter for inspiration as the latter played five more seasons and made another All-Star team after permanently moving to right field at age 35.
“Adam’s a smart guy. He’s a really good self-evaluator and calls it the way it is,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s a real tribute to him. He’s been talking to Cedric for a while — he knew. The thing that players don’t like is they just don’t like something thrown at them last second. He and I have been talking about it. It was a matter of when, not if.”
The start of the transition was fun to watch before Dylan Bundy and the Orioles bullpen imploded, turning an 8-3 lead into an ugly 19-12 loss to the Boston Red Sox.
Not only did the switch-hitting Mullins become the first Oriole ever to collect three hits in his major league debut, but Jones added three hits and two RBIs himself. After Mullins doubled in a run in his first at-bat in the second inning, Jones drove home the rookie with a two-run single to give Baltimore a 4-3 lead. Upon the completion of the inning with Jones stranded at first base, Mullins brought out his cap and glove from the dugout as the two bumped fists and the veteran gave the rookie a pat on the backside as they jogged to their new spots in the Camden Yards outfield.
It was a special moment in a season so few of them.
“He’s been very supportive of me playing center field,” Mullins said before Friday’s game. “We’ve had a lot of contact about it, and he’s kind of guiding me through that process. It’s huge. Coming from a guy with 10 years under his belt, he’s been a huge veteran and a huge team leader for all these years. Being in direct contact with him for a huge moment in both of our careers is amazing.”
Despite the ugly finish, Friday brought some hope as the Orioles continue their rebuilding process and Mullins became the first homegrown prospect to be promoted since last month’s sell-off.
His presence didn’t prevent the Orioles from losing their 81st game and officially being eliminated from American League East contention with just over seven weeks remaining in the season. But losing with Mullins gaining experience in center and Jones playing right sure beats the alternative of the seven other players the Orioles had trotted out to right field at various times this season.
That’s why it still felt like a good night as Mullins flashed the ability that’s made him a rapid climber in the Baltimore system these last couple years. The Orioles wouldn’t have moved Jones off the position he’d manned for more than a decade for just anyone.
“It’s fun to watch it through their eyes, and I’m so happy he’s got someone like Adam to be there for him,” said Showalter, who compared Mullins’ skill set to former Orioles great Al Bumbry the first time he watched him play in the minors. “It had to be the right guy. We think Cedric might be the right guy.”
For one night at least, he looked like it.