Putting Hays in corner an appealing move for Orioles

Among the important developments for the Orioles in 2021, and it requires looking past the record, run differential, negative WARs and the rest, is the ability of Austin Hays to stay in the lineup after his return from a strained left hamstring on June 11 and play in a career-high 131 games.

A mark that wasn’t hard to surpass considering the previous best was 33 last summer.

Hays accumulated 529 plate appearances, and he built on a reputation for finishing strong while others tend to whither. He’s a career .293/.344/.522 hitter with 18 doubles, 16 home runs and 47 RBIs in 323 plate appearances in September/October.

The Orioles concluded the season with 12 players on the 10-day or 60-day injured lists. Hays wasn’t counted among them. And he was tested, for sure, in Toronto with three hit by pitches in the last two games and a hard spill in the right field corner.

Hays smiled and headed to first base after being drilled on the foot and the buttocks over the weekend. He knew it wasn’t intentional, but he also had to wonder why his uniform still comes with a bull’s-eye drawn on it.

The former center fielder of the future is a corner outfielder now and a luxury for the Orioles with his skill set, including his speed and plus arm. Reminds me a little of Brady Anderson starting in left field, though he later moved to center.

Manager Johnny Oates wanted his best outfielder in left at Camden Yards, where home run balls can be pulled out of the stands and away from the reaching hands of fans, and preferred Anderson in that spot.

I don’t recall Anderson having Hays’ arm.

Hays-Misses-Catch-at-Wall-White-Sidebar.jpgHays made 75 starts and 88 appearances in left this summer, 42 starts and 54 appearances in right, and three starts and six appearances in center. To blame is Most Valuable Oriole Cedric Mullins, with 146 starts and 153 appearances in center.

Remember when Stevie Wilkerson led the club in center field starts?

Ryan McKenna was second on the club this season with 13 starts in center. Hays was the only other player moved to the middle of the outfield.

Hays is happy to move over for Mullins.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “I think anytime you have two center fielders playing the outfield together, it’s a ton of fun because you’re just saving pitchers left and right and just keeping those big innings from happening.”

Ryan Mountcastle made 18 starts in left field, none after June 20. Just a couple of appearances late in games. The team appears done with the outfield experiment because there’s no reason to keep it going with other players on the roster who are naturals at the position.

Mountcastle can be the primary first baseman and swap designated hitter duties with Trey Mancini, assuming the latter remains with the team. There isn’t a complication with this arrangement until Adley Rutschman shows up and the Orioles want to keep his bat in the lineup on non-catching days.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

In the present, the Orioles can feel most comfortable with their outfield situation. And again, this is assuming Anthony Santander remains in the organization and in right field, with McKenna a solid choice as backup at all three spots.

DJ Stewart could factor into this equation. He played hurt for the last few months, a knee injury that wasn’t publicized, and batted .204/.324/.374 in 100 games. His 44 walks ranked third behind Mullins (59 in 159) and Mancini (51 in 147) and ahead of Mountcastle (41 in 144).

The Orioles covet on-base skills, the ability to produce a good, patient at-bat, which improves Stewart’s chances of getting another opportunity. The odds might have been reduced if Yusniel Diaz - and I don’t mean to come across like I’m picking on the guy - had kicked down the door and stormed onto the major league roster.

Or if Heston Kjerstad had been able to start his professional career immediately after the Orioles made him the second-overall pick in 2020.

Meanwhile, baseball’s transactions page yesterday included how Santander, Tanner Scott, Ramón Urías, Tyler Wells and Chris Ellis were activated from 10-day IL, and Diaz, Alexander Wells, Paul Fry, Dean Kremer, Mike Baumann, Zack Burdi and Rylan Bannon were recalled from Triple-A Norfolk. And it meant nothing.

I checked. Nothing.

The ultimate in paper moves, with the season over and the existence of 10-day injured lists and active rosters disappearing. There’s only a 40-man roster and these players are on it.

The more you know ...

The minor league transactions list pitchers Adam Plutko and César Valdez as electing free agency.

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