SARASOTA, Florida—Austin Hays’ September teaser came close to not happening. Originally, the Orioles wanted to send Hays to the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost at-bats because of injuries to his left thumb and hamstring.
However, a week after the rosters expanded, the Orioles found out that Hays could play in both without conflict, and the decision was made to add him to the roster.
Hays played so well for the Orioles that they decided not to send him to the Fall League. In 21 games, Hays hit .308 with a .947 OPS. He had four home runs and 13 RBIs. He also played stellar defense in center field.
It was a huge difference from two years earlier when Hays, barely a year after the Orioles made him a third-round pick in 2016, was rushed to the majors from Double-A Bowie. Hays batted .217 in 20 games with a home run and eight RBIs. The Orioles planned for him spend 2018 with Triple-A Norfolk, but Hays’ injured his left ankle and missed half the season.
Although Hays played just 87 games at four minor league levels last year, he ended with the 21 games with the Orioles, standing out on offense and defense.
He is continuing to play exceptional defense this spring, showing an aggressiveness in center field. Hays is hitting only .125 (2-for-16) but he had a terrific game last Thursday in the Orioles’ 13-0 win over the Pirates. He had two doubles, two diving catches and threw out a runner from center.
“Those are definitely the fun games when you get a bunch of opportunities like that,” Hays said.
“We had just done cuts and relays the day before. It’s always nice when it shows up in the game. Come up with runners in scoring position, just trying to get a good pitch to hit there. I got after the fastball, hit a breaking ball with two strikes, and I got a couple of chances to dive for the ball. It was just a really fun game.”
Hays was not with the club for Tuesday’s game against the Washington Nationals in West Palm Beach.
The Orioles are hoping he’ll be the Opening Day centerfielder. Last year was a challenging one in center for the Orioles. They opened with Cedric Mullins but after his 6-for-64 start (.094), he was sent to the minor leagues and didn’t return.
The Orioles resorted to utility player Stevie Wilkerson, who learned on the job in center, before he yielded to Hays in September.
For the first time in three spring trainings, Hays’ position on the club appears secure.
“It just gives you a little bit more confidence knowing that if I can do what I did last year, which I know I’m capable of doing because I’ve shown up in spring training and played well before, I’ll be on the team,” Hays said. “It’s nice to know that.”
Manager Brandon Hyde has enjoyed watching Hays this spring.
“I don’t want to take away his aggressiveness,” Hyde said. “The reason why he’s such an exciting player is because he’s aggressive — aggressive defensively, aggressive on the bases. I want him to be aggressive in the strike zone.”
Hays enjoys making dazzling plays.
“That’s just how I play,” Hays said. “ If I have a chance to dive for the ball in the outfield, and help my pitcher out on the mound, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I was raised, and I think that’s the only way to play the game.”
This spring, the Orioles are playing top prospect Ryan Mountcastle, who’s new to left field, and Hays. With Hays (24) , Mountcastle (23) and Anthony Santander (25), who improved markedly last season, the team’s outfield could feature three young players who can hit.
“I think that you’re excited about how a lot of our young players are playing and the kind of players … from Santander to Hays to Mountcastle to [Yusniel] Diaz,” Hyde said.
“Watch [Adley Rutschman’s] at-bats. Even though he’s not getting the results he wants, you see the presence in the box. I think we have a real nice, young core that’s going to be exciting going forward, and it’s fun to watch them out there.”
Hays and Mountcastle have played together the last three seasons.
“We feed off each other,” Hays said. “It’s nice to see when a lot of the young guys are playing well … To get to see that, and where the future is going, it’s good.”
After losing 223 games in two seasons, Hays and a number of other young players with promise might help a shrinking fan base have something to rally around.
“We want them to be excited about the season and what’s coming in seasons forward,” Hays said.
The Orioles are searching for a leadoff hitter for this season, and Hay might be the fit.
“You get more at-bats,” Hays said. “I’m always down for more at-bats.”
Call for questions: If you have any questions about what you’ve seen, heard and read about the Orioles in spring training, please leave them in the comment section, or send them to me: [email protected] I’ll be doing a mailbag in the next several days.