When the Orioles get their full squad into spring training camp, we will begin to find out if rookie Austin Hays is going to begin the 2018 season as the club’s everyday right fielder, wind up in a reserve role or head back to the farm for more minor league seasoning.
Door No. 3 - more seasoning in the minors - is not necessarily the worst thing for a kid of just 22 and with only 64 games at the Double-A level under his belt.
But Hays has come on fast and was the first player from the 2016 draft to make the majors. He is now the Orioles’ No. 1 prospect and was ranked as high as No. 21 in the top 100 by Baseball America and No. 23 by MLBPipeline.com.
He had such a breakout season in 2017, you had to wonder whether we should start calling Austin “Mays” Hays.
He brings a lot to the table and can impact games on offense and defense. In 128 games for Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie last summer, he batted .329/.365/.593 and added 32 doubles, five triples, 32 homers, 81 runs and 95 RBIs. Hays led all minor league players in total bases (310) and ranked second in extra-base hits (69). He hit .411 against left-handers on the farm.
Hays also tied for second in all of the minors with his 32 homers and was one of just four players to hit as many in the minors. The other three all got the benefit of batting in the hitter-friendly Triple-A Pacific Coast League.
So Hays began last season in the Carolina League and ended it in the American League.
“I don’t want to say I’m surprised,” he said of moving so fast. “I say I’m blessed and I’m happy to be in this situation. Not really feeling any extra pressure. I’m the same guy. Just try to go in confident and healthy and get better every day.
“Hopefully, I can use everything I learned at the end of last season to carry over into this season. One thing I probably misinterpreted was the pace of the game. When you are watching on TV, it seems like the game moves slow. But it moves a lot faster than you anticipated.”
And when Hays walks into the Orioles clubhouse in Sarasota, the veterans now know him and his game.
“Exactly. They’ve seen me and how I go about my business,” Hays said. “I’m sure they were in similar situations coming up. If they see me making any rookie mistakes, I’m sure they can pull me to the side and let me know. The main thing guys told me last year was to just be yourself. Don’t change who you are or try to be something you’re not. You got here.”
In September, Hays also had to adjust to playing defense in big league ballparks, where having a third deck can impact getting a read on the ball off the bat. But Hays also found something else that challenged him with the glove in the majors.
“The biggest thing is the sound,” he said. “You can’t hear when other players are calling for the ball like you can in the minors. So it’s important to take your eyes off the ball and look to see if guys are waving their hands. That is the biggest thing.”
The Orioles are set with Trey Mancini in left field and Adam Jones in center. After that, they have Hays and three others on the 40-man roster among outfielders. That group is Anthony Santander, Joey Rickard and Jaycob Brugman. Also expected in camp as non-roster invitees are outfielders Cedric Mullins, DJ Stewart and Craig Gentry. The Orioles could still add a lefty hitter to platoon or play regularly in right. Santander must stay on the roster the first 44 days of this season to satisfy his Rule 5 obligation.
That brings us back to the beginning of this article. Does Hays emerge on the opening day roster or does the need for a lefty batter in the lineup grouped with Santander’s situation make it more likely he begins the new season at Triple-A?