It sounds much easier than it is, but most players have two basic goals in mind each year - stay healthy and stay productive. Can’t do the second without the first part.
After dealing with injuries earlier in his career and missing a month last year plus getting off to a slow start - he went 3-for-30 to start the year - outfielder Austin Hays is very aware that the 2021 season will be big for him. He has shown his tools and skills. Now he has to stay on the field over six months of the regular season.
“I think it’s the most important thing in my career that I’ve had to prove,” Hays said this afternoon during a Zoom interview. “I’ve proven in a short span of time I can have success at the big league level. Hopefully, no more, IL, DL stints. Need to show I can perform at a high level for a full season.”
Hays was out from mid-August to mid-September with a non-displaced rib fracture. He was hitting just .203 with an OPS of .519 when he got hurt. He came back from rehabbing the injury to produce a torrid finish to his season. In 14 September games, he batted .377/.404/.585/.988 to finish his season batting .279/.328/.393/.722. Hays went 10-for-22 with two homers in his last five games of the 2020 season.
Then he spent time this winter both trying to build on that and recapture his swing from four years ago when he finished as a finalist for Baseball America’s national Player of the Year award.
“Just continued to try to get back to things I was doing really well mechanically in 2017,” he said. “In short spurts, I’ve been very inconsistent, like the start of last season. And then I was able to make some mechanical adjustments rehabbing down at the alternate site after I had broken my ribs. When I came back, I was able to have a lot of success. Just identifying the differences in why things are going well or things are going bad. Just setting a really good fundamental routine that I have that can always go back to if I feel a game or two where those mechanical issues start to show up.
“I think I’m an everyday outfielder in the big leagues, whether that is in center, left field, right field. I think I have the speed and arm strength to play at any one of those positions. And I have the power to be able to be a corner outfielder, but the speed to be a center fielder as well. Wherever that lands me, it lands me. But I feel that I’m an everyday outfielder in the big leagues and I’m just looking forward to take advantage of that opportunity.”
But Hays, 25, also can look around and see the depth and quality of talent among the Orioles outfielders. Being a starter before doesn’t ensure he will be that on opening day.
“That is all you can ask from an organization, is to do really well with trades and the draft,” Hays said. “You see the depth that we have now. I think it brings out the best in all of us. We are out there competing against really good outfielders on a daily basis. So nobody takes reps off, nobody takes swings off. It’s going to in turn make all the outfielders better because no one gets complacent.”
Speaking of competing, Hays said he saw some of the club’s good bullpen arms during live batting practice today.
“We got to face a really good group today, it was pretty much our bullpen from last year. We got to see Paul Fry, Tanner Scott and (Cole) Sulser was in that mix,” Hays said. “And Hunter Harvey also. Tanner was doing this thing, like at 97 or 98 (mph). Fry was throwing his slider. Those guys were mixing it up really well, we didn’t get a whole lot to hit today. Hunter was up there slinging it. Good to compete against some good, live arms. Hadn’t seen live pitching in a while. It’s good to face those arms now and just get us ready for the games.”