Austin Hays almost took a detour through Arizona to make it back to the majors.
Hays was preparing to board a flight Wednesday and join the Surprise Saguaros of the Arizona Fall League until he got a call yesterday, as unexpected as they come, with news that the Orioles wanted him in Baltimore.
Major League Baseball is allowing players on the 40-man roster to report late to the AFL, giving Hays until the beginning of October to impress the Orioles.
The club felt that he needed more plate appearances after accumulating only 257 with Triple-A Norfolk, which led to his assignment to Surprise. Hays slashed .254/.304/.454 in 59 games with the Tides and batted .248/.299/.464 in 87 minor league games.
The stoppages, dip in production and commitment to the AFL figured to rule out Hays for a promotion.
“I got to go home and hang out with the family and strap down for the hurricane that came through and get to spend some time with them,” Hays said, “and yesterday I got an awesome phone call saying that I was going to come up here and get to be back with the boys in Baltimore, so I’m very excited to be here.”
Manager Brandon Hyde sounded confident earlier in the week that reliever Tayler Scott would be the only possible addition to his expanded roster. However, Hyde was told about the flexibility with the report date in the AFL and Hays found his way to the clubhouse.
“I think he’s had a little bit of time off, but he’s ready to play,” Hyde said. “He’s going to go out and take batting practice today. He’s part of the club and I’m going to mix him in.
“I was joking about how many outfielders we have, but certain guys are still going to play regularly with Tony (Santander) and Trey (Mancini) when he’s out there. Trey’s playing first base, also. The other guys, I’m going to rotate and shuffle around. They’ll all get at-bats and give them long looks.”
Hays said he understood the club’s initial reasoning behind sending him to the AFL and bypassing the September roster.
“I was hurt again this year, I missed games, so they wanted me to go and get some more reps and just be able to evaluate me that much more, that it was better for my development,” he said.
“Obviously, I wanted to get back to the big leagues this year, and one way or the other it worked out and I’m standing here in front of you guys right now, so I’m very grateful for that.”
Hays hasn’t appeared in a major league game since Oct. 1, 2017, with the third-round pick the previous year unable to stay healthy and get on a roll. He underwent ankle surgery last year, and a sprained thumb and a strained hamstring interrupted his 2019 season, but he’s remained a top prospect in the organization and gets another shot to impress.
It’s a big deal for an organization that also got former first-round pick Hunter Harvey to the majors this year.
“For me, it’s exciting to bring up young players that have tools,” Hyde said. “You can kind of get a glimpse of what it’s going to look like a few years from now. When we bring up the Austin Hayses and the Hunter Harveys, Santander earlier in the year, that’s exciting for me because I love seeing big league tools out there.
“They’ll take their lumps and they’ll have tough moments, but also you can see what things could possibly look like going forward, so happy to have young, talented guys.”
Hays got an unexpected call-up in September 2017 after the Orioles chose him as their Minor League Player of the Year. So much has changed for him, including the first whiffs of adversity.
“I’ve grown a lot,” he said. “I hadn’t failed at all the last time that I came up here. Everything went about as well as something can possibly go the start of your career, and since then it’s gone just about as bad. Dealing with injuries and failures and half my games have been rehab games playing at levels that I thought I was done with. So I’ve grown a lot mentally, physically. My patience with myself, not trying to do too much. Just trying to compete at a high level on the field and having fun with everything.”
Hyde now has two outfielders with extensive experience in center. Mason Williams had his contract selected from Norfolk earlier in the week.
Hays also can play the corners, but ideally on opening day he’d be in center, where reports on him have been “good,” according to Hyde.
“I was talking to Gary (Kendall) and Gary liked him in center field,” Hyde said. “I thought he played really well in center field in spring training. What I saw in spring training, I liked the energy he plays with. He plays hard, goes and gets it, gets down the line really well.
“Now it’s about experience in center field in the big leagues, or wherever I play him. I could probably play him in a couple places. The reports from Triple-A are he played well out there in center and he’ll play a little bit these next few weeks out there.”
“I love it,” Hays said. “I’m definitely more comfortable this year than I have been the last few years. It’s just more games, more reps, more reads, more throws, angles, all those things. I’m very comfortable there now. I love it.”
Today marks a chapter in Hays’ season and life that he didn’t expect to pen.
“It was, unfortunately, very similar to last year,” he said. “Spring training was a little bit different this year. I came in, I was healthy through spring training, I felt good, and then the thumb injury was really tough on me. I ended up missing six weeks. I felt like I started to get consistent again with the at-bats and playing every day, and then the hamstring thing came out of nowhere. It was just mild, though. I only missed two weeks.
“I rehabbed and I felt very good about the second half of my season this year. I was playing every day, I was having consistent, competitive at-bats game in and game out. So for me, the second half was really good for me to come back from.”
What does Hays want to accomplish over the next three weeks?
“I just want to compete at a high level,” he said. “I want to have competitive at-bats every night and just show this team what I have and what I can do and try to help the guys win games.”
The promotion can be interpreted as a vote of confidence for Hays, who batted .351/.385/.892 (13-for-37) with three doubles, a triple, five home runs and 13 RBIs in 12 exhibition games but didn’t break camp with the team.
“I know that the last couple of years it’s been short on just the amount of reps that they’ve been able to get their eyes on,” Hays said, “but it definitely is nice that they’re willing to give me the opportunity to come up here and compete with these guys, seeing that I haven’t played but about half the games the last two years.”
Hays is wearing No. 21.
I wrote earlier that executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias confirmed infielder/outfielder Ryan Mountcastle, outfielder Cedric Mullins and left-hander Keegan Akin weren’t joining the Orioles this month.
Mullins, the opening day center fielder, hit for the cycle today for Double-A Bowie in its playoff game in Harrisburg, Pa. He’s the first Baysox player to do it since Manny Machado in 2012.
“I don’t think we’re going to be calling Cedric up,” Elias said. “I talked to him the other night in Bowie. It’s been a lost season for him in a lot of ways, and the fact that he has ended up back in Bowie is not something I ever would’ve dreamt or would’ve wanted to see, and I don’t think he did, either.
“We do think that he might benefit from making some mechanical changes and some very focused mechanical work. He’s got a real good approach. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s still really young and he’s still a heck of a center fielder, so we’re going to put together a program for him in the offseason to work on his swing. But at this time, with the number of outfielders who we have, I’m not anticipating that. But certainly, if something changes it’s a possibility.”
The Orioles want Mountcastle to work on plate discipline - more walks and fewer strikeouts - while also learning two new positions. There’s also a glut of corner infield/outfield/DH types on the roster.
“It is a factor,” Elias said. “We have a lot of players that play the same positions that he does who are here right now that need to hit, too. With us not being in a hurry to graduate Ryan and having other things to develop with him, and the fact that we need to see what we continue to get with these guys, it is a factor. So I think it’s nice we’re in a position where we don’t have to rush him up. As we’ve stated all along, the degree to which we can prioritize development over major league need, we’re going to lean that way right now. But yeah, it’s part of the equation.”
Elias is encouraged by reports of Mountcastle’s work in the outfield.
“He’s been good in left,” Elias said. “Obviously, he’s not perfect. He just started playing there this year. I think he said he’d only played there, like, once in high school, and he’s shown some good ability in left field. And his arm has been playing well out there, relative to the infield, so we want to continue to keep that as an option, first base and third base, to whatever degree possible.”
Akin was a consideration, but the Orioles want him to cut down on his walks - the opposite of Hays and Mountcastle.
“It’s tough,” Elias said. “These guys, they’re big prospects. If need be, could they come to the big leagues? Yeah. They’re not fully finished with their development, really, for the same reasons, and it’s walk rate in a lot of cases.
“Keegan walked, I believe, somewhere between 4.5 or five batters per nine (innings) this year, I don’t remember the exact number, but his strikeout numbers are great. He had a nice full season, got 93 or 94 innings under his belt and he will be in a very strong position to compete for a rotation spot (next) year, and I fully expect him to be in the major leagues with us next year.
“Again, thrilled to have him, but part of the rebuilding process that we’re going through in its early stages is we also try to bring in talent from the major league level outside, the guys that we have here, waiver claims, and give them some rope and try to find some diamonds in the rough that way. These guys are coming and they’re a big part of our future.”
Making these difficult roster decisions is a positive development rather than a stressor.
Elias gave a nod to the previous front office, player development and scouting personnel.
“I think the talent that is in this organization and has been in this organization prior to our group getting here, I think it was kind of given a short shrift publicly,” Elias said.
“You’ve seen what the minor leagues have done this year, what the pitchers have done in the minor leagues. They’ve responded well to the program we’ve put in place, but these are also really good draft picks, and these were guys that the organization took with high picks and they’re doing well, so I feel good about the strides that we’ve made in our farm system. But I also feel good about the talent that we have here, and by no means are we starting from scratch. I do feel like we have an above-average farm system at this point, so that’s nice.”
Santander is a fine example, a Rule 5 pick while Dan Duquette was in charge.
“He’s looked awesome,” Elias said. “We’ve all been watching him. Switch-hitter with a really pretty swing from both sides. The defense, he’s playable in center and he’s looked above-average to us when he’s in the corners. And he’s young, 24 years old, and strong. He’s got everything you want and I think it’s been a pleasant surprise this year.
“I credit members of the coaching staff with it, and people in the front office when I got here said, ‘Keep an eye on this guy. He had a rough couple of years because he was brought up to the big leagues so quick from the Rule 5, and he had some injuries.’ I think it was a shoulder, but they knew there was some potential here and we’re thrilled with him.”
Elias also passed along good news regarding pitcher DL Hall, who was shut down at Single-A Frederick due to a mild lat strain.
“It’s just the kind of thing where he needs to take some time off. I hear it’s getting better and better, so he’s in good shape,” Elias said.
“I don’t think we’re going to have him pitch competitively this offseason, but he’ll have a normal program in terms of throwing and, fingers crossed, he’s going to come to spring training 100 percent. If this injury had happened in May or June, he probably would have missed a month and come back, but it happened two weeks before the end of the season and we shut him down.”
Update: Aaron Brooks allowed six runs and threw 41 pitches in the top of the first inning. Rougned Odor hit a three-run homer.
Update II: The Orioles scored three runs, two unearned, in the bottom of the first. Santander had an RBI single.
Update III: Odor doubled with two outs in the third and scored on Delino DeShields’ single for a 7-3 lead.
Update IV: Rio Ruiz homered in the fourth to cut the lead to 7-4, but the Rangers scored twice off Chandler Shepherd in the sixth. Dwight Smith Jr. overran Ronald Guzman’s single to let one run score and Jeff Mathis had an RBI double.