In a season filled with misery, Orioles fans have been clamoring for a player or two to cling onto for the future, and they may have found just that guy in Austin Hays.
It’s no secret that recent history suggests the Orioles have an awful track record when it comes to developing pitching prospects. However, hitters haven’t been much of an issue. Players like Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop made real, immediate impacts to the ball club. Other players like Trey Mancini never received much prospect fanfare, but nonetheless developed into a legitimate big-league bat, suggesting perhaps Baltimore’s development staff held the secret sauce when it came to young bats.
Austin Hays completely burst onto the scene in 2017 (just a year after he was drafted), slashing .329/.365/.593 with 32 home runs in 523 minor league at-bats. Hays rocketed up prospect rankings, going so far as No. 21 on MLB Pipeline’s list. Of course, as luck would have it, Hays endured much of 2018 and 2019 injury-riddled, facing one obstacle after another, hoping to return to form, but doing so unsuccessfully.
Hays was actually the first 2016 draftee to make his major league debut. He briefly appeared for the Orioles’ 2017 club, a team that was trying to snag the final American League Wild Card spot.
Hays couldn’t replicate 2017’s success, hitting closer to the Mendoza line and more than 100 points lower than his 2017 batting average (.235). Hays also had over 200 fewer at-bats, as he could not remain healthy and was probably never 100 percent throughout the year. Heading into 2019, there was optimism that Hays could win a job out of Spring Training as there would be an opportunity in the outfield with the absence of Adam Jones. Instead, Hays was optioned to minor league camp where he promptly incurred a thumb injury while sliding into second base that would sideline him for weeks.
Hays didn’t put up eye-popping numbers in the minors this year, but his power seemed to come back. Hays knocked 17 balls out of the park and slugged a more than modest .464. Hays was promoted to the Orioles in September and, in a limited sample size, has produced a .885 OPS. Hays has also shown his range in the outfield, making diving catches and getting to balls former center fielder Stevie Wilkerson could never dream of getting to. (To be fair to Wilkerson, he is a converted infielder.)
After another double, Hays is now batting .333/.385/.500. Yes, it's only 26 PA, but I'd rather have to pump the brakes on exciting numbers than have to explain why bad ones will improve.
— Camden Chat (@CamdenChat) September 19, 2019
All things considered, it appears the Orioles are tentatively handing the keys to Austin Hays and praying he stays healthy. Manager Brandon Hyde recently compared Hays to former All-Star A.J. Pollock, and for a guy who doesn’t draw many walks, the analytically-minded Orioles’ front office is seemingly willing to give him a chance. Hays is a previous regime guy and one who wouldn’t necessarily come to mind as a new regime staple, but his play could dictate his necessity to the big league club.
If he stays healthy, Hays will be the Orioles’ 2020 Opening Day center fielder.
Listening to Hays in interviews, he comes off as a highly competitive individual who has been humbled by injury and failure. The Orioles will need players like this as the times will continue to be tough.
But perhaps more importantly, the O’s need players who have faced adversity when they are ready to win again. It’s Austin Hays time.