From student to teacher: Orioles' Jones mentoring heir apparent Mullins
When Adam Jones arrived in Peoria in 2006 for his first big-league spring training, the precocious Seattle Mariners prospect found himself with a bevy of potential mentors at his disposal, from established stars like Raul Ibanez to role players like Willie Bloomquist.
Jones took full advantage.
"We were always fighting on the backfields together," he told theScore in a recent interview. "I never got to get on Field 1 in spring training, so me and Bloomquist were always pushing each other because we were infielders and when I went to the outfield he came out there, too. Bloomquist was my dude in that (mentor) role. But I definitely leaned on and asked a lot of questions to Ibanez and Jose Guillen. Jose Vidro. We had some really good guys when I was over there."
More than a decade later, the student has become the teacher.
With his Baltimore Orioles in the infancy of a rebuild, their clubhouse increasingly overrun with anonymous youngsters, Jones has taken on the role of mentor to outfielder Cedric Mullins, the 23-year-old speedster recently summoned to Baltimore for a low-pressure audition to potentially be the club's center fielder for 2019 and beyond. Even though Mullins has displaced him from his customary defensive position, Jones - who had never, prior to Mullins' arrival, played a position other than center field for the Orioles - is more than happy to help him acclimatize, dispensing nuggets of veteran wisdom to his newly recalled (and currently en fuego) heir apparent whenever Mullins asks.
"It's up to the younger guy to come up to the older guy," said Jones, who's now patrolling right field. "And he's asked me many questions, and I've just tried to be an older figure for him. I'm not trying to be his dad or be anything besides just somebody he can lean on whenever he needs it."
He hasn't so far - at least, it hasn't seemed that way, based on the success Mullins has enjoyed since getting called up from Triple-A Norfolk.
Through his first 11 games in the majors, Mullins, a 13th-round pick in the 2015 draft, boasts a robust .333/.409/.615 line with two home runs, five doubles, and five walks. Only once has he failed to reach base safely in a game. His multi-hit performances exceed his 0-fers. After going 8-for-20 (.400) in his first half-dozen contests, throughout which he hit toward the bottom of the lineup, Mullins was bumped into the leadoff spot; he's posted a .965 OPS since making the move.
Needlessly deferential as it may be, Mullins - a career .274 hitter (.777 OPS) over parts of four seasons in the minors - takes little credit for his nascent success, instead attributing his torrid start to those around him.
"The support of everybody, the coaching staff, the players," Mullins said when asked what has fueled his hot start. "They've basically taken me under their wings and (are) making sure that I continue to play hard and play smart."
And specifically, Mullins said, credit is owed to Jones, or Jonesy, as he calls him.
"Him being as supportive as he is, just in general, he just really took me under his wing and has guided me through this process."
This could've been awkward. An unheralded prospect comes up - Mullins, after all, never once cracked a canonical top-100 list - and bumps a franchise icon to an unfamiliar and less valuable position, months before his first-ever foray into free agency? A more insecure veteran may not have been as gracious as Jones, whose obligation to pay it forward, so to speak, was cemented in 2008, shortly after the Mariners traded him and four other players to Baltimore for left-hander Erik Bedard.
"I've always been an open book with him," said Jones. "I had a guy - I had Jay Payton - my first year here. So he always told me when younger guys come in, just open yourself to them."
And he has. This spring, for the first time, the two were lockered next to one another at Ed Smith Stadium, affording Mullins his first opportunity to "truly talk" to Jones even though the two had crossed paths at spring training the year prior. There, amid the tedium of Florida in February, the foundation of a relationship was laid.
"I formally introduced myself," recalled Mullins. "I knew exactly who he is."
Jones added: "I think (being locker mates) made it easy. It was great that he was at spring training so that he was able to be around all of us because we knew that the call-up was going to be imminent if he stayed healthy. Because he was going to put up the numbers and have a good year."
Indeed, he did. Reassigned, as expected, to Double-A Bowie shortly before Opening Day, Mullins tore it up in his second tour of the Eastern League, hitting .313/.362/.512 across 49 games and earning himself a promotion to Norfolk in early June. The learning curve was a bit steeper in the International League - Mullins mustered a .757 OPS in 59 contests - but with the Orioles' postseason ambitions effectively shot by May, a call-up for the stretch run seemed probable, if not inevitable.
So, after jettisoning considerable veteran talent in the weeks and days leading up to the trade deadline, ahead of their Aug. 10 series opener against the Boston Red Sox at Camden Yards, the Orioles designated Danny Valencia for assignment and called up Mullins to take his spot. As the kid settled into his new reality, Jones, a five-time All-Star, was there to remind him that he earned this opportunity.
"Almost like we just picked up where we left off," said Mullins. "He just told me to push through that barrier of being in the minors. He was like, 'You need to know that you belong here. You need to play that way.'"
Since, Jones said, Mullins has expanded the roster of dudes he'll lean on, availing himself of guidance from the Orioles' other veterans.
"When I was young, I always went around the older guys and was like to a sponge to them," Jones said. "And he's been like that with myself and other veterans so it's refreshing that he gets it."
Soon enough, the Orioles' dismal season will be over, and Jones' tenure with the franchise may well be, too. (It's unclear if the Orioles will even extend the 33-year-old a qualifying offer.) Next spring, Mullins will still be young and relatively inexperienced. Thanks to Jones, though, he'll be a little more adept at handling the seemingly endless, often dizzying responsibilities endemic to life in the big leagues.
"It's just a completely different lifestyle compared to the minor leagues," Mullins remarked.
Ultimately, a good mentor can't turn a mediocre player into a superstar. A bad mentor, though, can wreak havoc on his protege's career, insidiously or otherwise.
Mullins, then, should count himself lucky.
"It's like the policeman that comes out of the academy and (gets a veteran partner who) knows the right way to do things and read the Miranda act and do everything proper," said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. "And then sometimes they get with a bad veteran cop that tells them all the shortcuts and how to set up guys that they think are guilty, you know? But we're lucky to have a good one like Adam that won't get involved in the bad shortcuts."
Jonah Birenbaum is theScore's senior MLB writer. He steams a good ham. You can find him on Twitter @birenball.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)