SARASOTA, Fla.—Austin Hays is leading the Orioles in home runs and RBIs this spring. That didn’t prevent him from being optioned to Triple-A Norfolk on Sunday.
Hays was one of eight players cut by the Orioles as they reduced their squad to 39, 14 above where they must be for the March 28 opener against the New York Yankees.
The Orioles also optioned right-handed pitchers Cody Carroll, Branden Kline and Yefry Ramirez, infielder Stevie Wilkerson and outfielder Anthony Santander to the Tides. Infielder Christopher Bostick and right-hander Gabriel Ynoa were reassigned to minor league camp.
“A lot of very talented players sent out today,” Orioles general manager Mike Elias said. “Some…had spectacular camps, huge parts of our future. If you look at the list from today, I would expect that perhaps all eight of these players will play for the Orioles this year.”
Hays, who had such a strong year in High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie that he was brought to the major leagues in September 2017, 15 months after he was drafted, had an injury-marred 2018 and had right ankle surgery.
The 23-year-old, who hit .351 with five home runs and 15 RBIs this spring, said that he was surprised by the demotion.
“A little bit. I was putting up some good numbers, I was feeling good, feeling healthy,” Hays said.
“I still haven’t played too many games in the minor leagues, I haven’t had too many at-bats. I missed almost a whole year due to injuries. There’s some time I need to make up. Just keep doing what I’m doing, keep the momentum that I built here in spring training and carry it into the season, wherever it is.”
Hays hit .217 with a home run and eight RBIs in 20 late-season games in 2017 and was expected to spend significant time with the Orioles last season.
“It’s just I came up here really, really fast,” Hays said. “I missed a lot of time last year, so it’s just a matter of getting the reps in, continuing to work, continuing to learn and grow as a player. That way, when I do come up and play my next game in Camden Yards, hopefully, I’ll stick and be here for good.”
Hays had outperformed incumbent Cedric Mullins in center field, and many expected him to go north with the Orioles.
“It’s important to prioritize the individual development, especially with players that are going to be centerpieces of our future here,” Elias said. “And we’re going to err on the side of what is right for the particular players rather than experiment or trying to get them on the roster early and see what happens.”
Elias liked what he saw from Hays and thinks he can play center and right field, but said that Hays in center is more valuable to the Orioles.
“We’re very excited about how he looked,” Elias said. “His health was a question mark coming into this camp for him and for us. He looks terrific. His tools have returned, and he had a very productive camp, so this is exactly what we were hoping for.
“In terms of the decision surrounding Austin, look at his body of work. He has not spent much time at the Double-A level. He’s spent zero time at the Triple-A level. He had a bad year last year due to injury, and we felt that it was important to get him a baseline of production and get his feet under him—literally, and then see what we have and go from there. We’ll make the right determination around his career development rather than reacting to the fact that he’s had statistically the best camp here.”
Ramirez had a rough start to his big league career, going 1-8 with a 5.92 ERA last year. He was chosen to start the first Grapefruit League game, on February 23, but never started again.
He had a 1-0 record and 5.11 ERA in five spring games and never really fit into the competition for a back-end starter’s job. He started 12 games for the Orioles last season.
Carroll’s demotion was a surprise, too. He had a 2.57 ERA in seven Grapefruit League games, striking out seven and walking one.
He came to the Orioles in the July trade with the New York Yankees for Zack Britton and was 0-2 with a 9.00 ERA in 15 games.
“He’s another guy where, while I’m very excited about how he looked in camp, and how well he did statistically in camp, I’ve learned and the evidence bears out that real whole-season minor league statistics have a little more predictive information to them than spring training statistics.”
Santander was a Rule 5 draft choice two years ago and has a .214 big league batting average with a home run and eight RBIs in 46 games with the Orioles over the last two seasons. He hit .333 this spring with two homers and seven RBIs.
Wilkerson had stiff competition for a utility job. Last year, he played 16 games with the Orioles and hit .174 with three RBIs. This spring, he hit .222 with a home run and nine RBIs.
In his first major league camp, Kline, who has never pitched above Double-A, had an 0-2 record and 5.79 ERA.
Bostick, who was also competing for a utility job, batted .233 with three RBIs. Ynoa, who missed nearly all of last season because of injuries, was 1-0 with a 1.13 ERA in three games.
“We’ve got a good club remaining,” Elias said. “There’s still a lot of competition remaining in this camp, and by no means were the guys who were sent out today off the radar screen.”
Elias has some important decisions remaining. This week, the Orioles may have to add veteran infielder Alcides Escobar, catcher Jesus Sucre and outfielder Eric Young Jr. to the 40-man roster. All came to camp on minor league contracts.
“I don’t want to take anyone off the 40-man,” Elias said. “It’s just something we’re going to have to wait, and on top of that I also anticipate that other teams will be taking guys off the roster and putting them on waivers that might be attractive to us. These are just some of the most difficult decisions that we’re doing right now, determining who we might take off the roster if we’re going to be adding somebody, which we probably will.”