After teasing the Orioles with two strong Septembers, Austin Hays appears ready to put together a full season if he can stay healthy.
In 2019, Hays hit .309 with a .947 OPS in 21 games in September, leading the Orioles to believe that he was ready to be their full-time centerfielder and leadoff hitter. But his health has held him back.
He missed time because of a variety of injuries in 2018 and 2019. The Orioles were going to send Hays to the Arizona Fall League in 2019 until they found out he could he could play for them and in Arizona. His time in the majors worked out so well, he never had to go to the AFL.
Hays had ankle surgery in 2018 after playing only 75 minor league games. In 2019, a broken thumb and hamstring injuries limited him to 87 games.
In 2020, Hays began the pandemic-shortened season with the Orioles. It was the first time he started a season in the majors and was hitting just .203 with a .519 OPS when he was placed on the 10-day injured list because of a fractured rib on August 15th.
At the time of the injury, manager Brandon Hyde predicted that Hays would miss only 10 days. Instead, Hays missed a month, and when he returned he found an altered outfield.
Anthony Santander, the eventual Most Valuable Oriole, saw his season end because of an oblique injury on September 4th. Cedric Mullins got many of the starts Hays would have gotten in center, Ryan Mountcastle had joined the team and played well in left, and DJ Stewart showed flashes of power in right.
Hyde played Hays in the final 14 Oriole games, and he hit .377 with a .988 OPS.
He played all three outfield positions in the final two weeks as Hyde experimented with his defense. With Santander out, he played Hays, Mountcastle, Mullins and Stewart in the outfield. In the final days, he tried Mountcastle at first.
Because of the injuries to Hays and Santander, Hyde never got to see Hays, Mountcastle, Mullins, Santander and Stewart together.
How this will work out for next season is difficult to predict, especially with Trey Mancini coming back and Renato Núñez still on the roster. Chris Davis remains on the roster, too.
Mullins was the beneficiary of Hays’ absence, playing center field so well that Hyde campaigned for Mullins to be considered a Gold Glove candidate. A switch-hitter who led the majors with nine bunt base hits, Mullins hit far better as a right-hander (.305 with a .796 OPS) than as a left-hander (.171 with a .502 OPS).
Mullins and Hays bring a dimension of speed to the outfield. Hays’ one home run before he went on the injured list was the Orioles’ first inside-the-park home run in nearly nine years. The homer, which came in the 10th inning on August 11th in Philadelphia, was hit with an automatic runner on second, making it the first leadoff two-run homer in MLB history.
Hays has made several acrobatic catches and, when he’s been in left and Mullins in center, the Orioles’ outfield defense has been impressive.
The Orioles also are likely to make room for another outfielder at some point in 2021, Yusniel Diaz, who is expected to be placed on the 40-man roster before Friday’s deadline. Ryan McKenna, another outfield prospect who was at the Bowie alternate site, is also on the 40-man roster.
The number of promising outfielders might present a positive problem for the Orioles. Diaz, who was also at the Bowie alternate site in 2020, hasn’t played above Double-A. The Orioles would like to see Diaz and McKenna perform at Triple-A. Neither got the chance last year because the minor leagues were shut down by Covid-19.
In Mike Elias’ first two seasons as Orioles executive vice president/general manager, he’s been conservative in promoting prospects, wanting them to stick with the team and not returning to the minors once they move up.
Elias also has drafted some outfield prospects, including Heston Kjerstad, the second overall pick in this year’s draft. Kjerstad wasn’t invited to the alternate site and wasn’t able to participate in last month’s Instructional League because of a non-sports-related medical condition.
Other outfield prospects from the last two drafts, including Hudson Haskin, Johnny Rizer, Kyle Stowers and Zach Watson, did attend the Instructional League.