Hays and Mullins head up improved outfield depth on the farm

When Baseball America ranked outfielder Austin Hays at No. 21 on its latest top 100 prospects list, that was a nice, lofty ranking for the youngster who went from Single-A Frederick to the major leagues last year. He was the Orioles' 2017 minor league Player of the Year, winning the Brooks Robinson Award.

In fact, Hays is just the fourth Orioles outfielder since Baseball America's first top 100 ranking in 1990 to be ranked that high or higher. There have been 29 polls since the first one.

Austin-Hays-Bowie-at-bat-orange-sidebar.jpg1993: Jeffrey Hammonds was No. 19
1994: Jeffrey Hammonds was No. 3
1998: Darnell McDonald was No. 21
2006: Nick Markakis was No. 21

The position of outfield is looking better these days on the Orioles farm. MLBPipeline.com ranked Hays as the No. 6 outfielder in its listing of the current top 10 outfield prospects. That outlet ranked Hays as No. 23 overall. There are just five outfielders ranked ahead of Hays on the Baseball America top 100. Until Hays this year, Markakis was the only O's outfield prospect ranked No. 21 or higher since 1998.

But now we can add other outfielders that have some potential on the O's farm. Cedric Mullins was rated as the club's No. 5 prospect by Baseball Prospectus, No. 7 by MLBPipeline, No. 8 by ESPN and No. 9 by Baseball America. Anthony Santander, originally signed by the Indians and not the Orioles, is No. 8 on the Baseball America and MLBPipeline list. DJ Stewart, the club's first-round pick in 2015, is No. 8 on the Baseball Prospectus list.

Others like Randolph Gassaway, Ademar Rifaela and Jake Ring took some nice steps forward on the farm last season. While Mike Yastrzemski has dealt with some injury issues in recent years, he is still in the picture. Some younger players like Cole Billingsley, Ryan McKenna, Jaylen Ferguson and Lamar Sparks did some solid things at times on the farm in 2017.

In its newest O's top 30, MLBPipeline listed six outfielders with Hays at No. 1, Mullins at No. 7, Santander at No. 8. Stewart at No. 13, Sparks at No. 22 and Rifaela at No. 29.

Is there another Hays on the rise on the farm? Certainly no one is saying anything like that. Certainly no one is projecting that. But the Orioles are building some outfield depth among their affiliates.

Letdown for Lee: He might have been a longshot to make the O's opening day pitching staff, but when spring training began, a door was ajar for lefty Chris Lee. Acquired by the Orioles in May 2015 from the Astros for international bonus money, Lee was added to the 40-man roster after that season and has been on the 40 ever since without yet having pitched a single inning at the big league level in the regular season.

Now 25, Lee's progress toward the majors took a bit of a hit last season, when he went 5-6 with a 5.11 ERA at Triple-A Norfolk. His chance to prove he's better than that and make a run at a 2018 roster spot got derailed by a right oblique injury. An MRI yesterday confirmed the injury and Lee will be out at least four weeks.

So he still waits for that first major league chance. Lee would have had every opportunity at a roster spot this spring. The O's not only could use a left-hander in their rotation, but they have openings in their bullpen.

"He's still going to get an opportunity, but it certainly takes him out of the mix here (at spring training)," manager Buck Showalter told the media in Sarasota. "We were really looking forward to getting him some good looks and seeing if he could start taking strides toward the pitcher that his pure arm tells you he could be. A lot of other things he's got to improve on, but that kind of pushes that timetable back."

Lee was ranked as the Orioles' No. 6 prospect by Baseball America at the end of the 2015 season and has been ranked No. 10 at the end of the past two seasons. But now his 2018 season will likely begin in extended spring training as he tries to work his way back into the club's big league pitching mix.

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