A huge 2017 season and he was a finalist for national Player of the Year by Baseball America. Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña Jr. was the winner. But parts of Hays’ 2018 and 2019 seasons were impacted by injuries and his stats fell off.
Who knew what to expect when Hays got a callup to the Orioles last Sept. 7? But over 75 plate appearances, he hit .309/.373/.574 with six doubles, four homers, two steals, 12 runs and 13 RBIs. He showed five tools, including strong defense.
After two less than great seasons, it was a great way to end last year. Now Hays heads into spring training as the heavy favorite to emerge as the everyday center fielder.
“It was surreal for me,” Hays, 24, said Sunday of his strong September. “I think every player starts to build a little bit of doubt when you haven’t had the at-bats and you’ve gone backwards in levels. You can lose your confidence a little bit. For me, to put together a healthy second half and play almost every game and then get the opportunity in September and play as well as I did, it meant a lot to me. It just got my mind back to where it was in 2017. Now my body is feeling the way it was. I’m ready to go.”
Before left thumb and right hamstring injuries set him back for some of last season, Hays had a strong spring. He made a case to make the team, batting .351 (13-for-37) and tied for the team lead with five homers while leading the Orioles with 13 RBIs in Florida.
“As far as spring training, I just want to come in and do exactly what I did last year,” he said during Sunday’s Birdland Caravan stop in Frederick. “I was healthy, I was running well, playing good defense. Offensively, I found my timing on the fastball and had a lot of plate discipline on the breaking ball. I’m just trying to get into that groove again this spring training and carry that momentum into the season. And hopefully that will be in the outfield for the Orioles this year.”
Hays got some input about his winter before he left the team at the end of last season.
“The biggest thing was they wanted me to have a healthy offseason,” he said. “So give my body time to rest and try to be as athletic as possible coming into spring training. Talking to our strength and performance coordinators, a big part of that was trying to get as strong as I could at a light weight. Seasons in the past, I’ve come into spring heavier. I tried to put on weight and get bigger and stronger. This year, I did a lot more sprint work and had a lot different diet plan where I could stay light. And try to get strong at that weight so I could be faster and more physical coming in. Just trying to be as athletic as possible. No bumps in the road, the ankle is feeling great. Feel 100 percent coming into spring.”
The injuries might have limited him to 87 games and .248 average on the farm last year, but due to rehab outings, it gave him a chance to check out talent at four levels. During 2019, he played at Single-A Frederick, Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk and also at short-season Single-A Aberdeen. He saw the organization’s talent on display.
“It’s unbelievable. There are some guys that can really sling it. We’ve got some guys that can run at every level, some good defensive players. There are some guys that have some pop, too,” Hays said. “Think we’ve got a little bit of everything mixed in. Our pitching has come a long way since I first got drafted in 2016.”
So does he feel he’s going to be the center field starter on March 26 against the Yankees?
“Right now, I feel like I’ve put myself in a great position with how I performed at the end of the year and in September,” said Hays. “Moving forward, just stay healthy. I’m not going to change any approach that I had. Last spring went great for me.”
Mountcastle will be there, too: O’s prospect Ryan Mountcastle had a strong spring last year, too, and he’s ready for another go-around in Sarasota. He was added to the club’s 40-man roster in November and now it seems a matter of time before he makes his major league debut.
It seems more to be a matter of when, not if.
Mountcastle was both the International League MVP and the Orioles’ Brooks Robinson Minor League Player of the Year in 2019. As he gets ready to head to Sarasota, he said fans he met on the Caravan trail Sunday in Frederick helped fire him up.
“It’s exciting. Just seeing how excited they are all for the season definitely brings some excitement to the players as well,” he said. “Go into spring, just play hard and train hard and do whatever I can to make the team. I feel ready to go, I feel good.”
Mountcastle hit .312/.344/.527 with an .871 OPS in his first season at Triple-A Norfolk. He added 35 doubles, one triple, 25 homers, 81 runs and 83 RBIs. He led the IL in hits (162) and total bases (274).
On defense in 2019 with the Tides, Mountcastle made 83 starts at first base and nine at third. Late in the year, he started 26 times in left field. He said he’s not sure where he will play the most in spring, but he’s bringing three gloves with him.
“I feel like I’ve progressed a lot. I feel comfortable at all the positions right now and I’m excited to put them into the game,” he said.
As a player selected in the draft right out of the high school ranks, Mountcastle started his pro career in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League. He’s made five other stops since then, all of them through Norfolk.
Next stop, Baltimore.
“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to make it up to the bigs and, you know, to be one step closer to my dream goal, I mean it’s definitely really cool to see,” Mountcastle said.