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Orioles prospect season in review: Austin Hays

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2018 was a lost season for one of the Orioles’ top prospects. An ankle injury knocked him out for much of the year, ultimately requiring surgery.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Austin Hays had a very good 2017. He destroyed pitchers in high-A Frederick to start the season and upon his promotion to double-A Bowie he destroyed those pitchers as well. He earned a September call up with the Orioles, the first player drafted in 2016 to make the majors. And at the end of the season he was ranked by Baseball America as the 21st best prospect in baseball. Things were looking good for our guy.

Thus, it is fair to say that 2018 did not go the way most people expected for him, including (I assume) Hays himself. As 2017 came to a close, it seemed likely he might break camp with the Orioles in 2018 as their starting right fielder. Unfortunately for Hays, that is not what happened.

The Orioles have made some weird and bad roster decisions and as such ended up with more mediocre outfielders than they knew what to do with in 2018. 2017’s rule five pick Anthony Santander still needed to remain on the roster for over a month. Trey Mancini, third in Rookie of the Year voting, had to play in the outfield because Chris Davis was entrenched at first base. Mark Trumbo was also there. And then the Orioles, for some reason, signed noted quitter Colby Rasmus to a one-year deal.

To top it all off, Hays missed time at spring training with a shoulder injury. That, along with the glut of “outfielders” the Orioles had amassed, punched his ticket back to Bowie to start the season. Even then, it seemed only a matter of time before Hays was back in Baltimore. But it wasn’t to be.

Through 43 games at Bowie, Hays struggled. He had OPS’d .960 for the Baysox the year before, but mustered only a .224/.259/.374 hitting line before being placed on the disabled list with an ankle injury. He didn’t return for two months, and it turns out that break may have been just what he needed to figure out what he was doing wrong. From an August article by the Baltimore Sun’s Jon Meoli:

“I had a lot of stuff going on mechanically that I didn’t have going on last year,” Hays said. “I was missing a lot of good fastballs to hit that I didn’t miss last year, and it was causing me not to be able to see the breaking ball, so I was chasing a lot of stuff out of the zone that I didn’t chase last year. Just simplifying things and spreading out, just allowing myself to see the ball and let my hands work and just trust myself. Those are pretty much the biggest thing.”

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“It’s just being able to trust myself and allow the ball to get deep enough to see if it’s a ball or a strike, and what kind of pitch it was,” Hays said. “Earlier in the year, it just seemed like I was swinging at balls out of the hand before I even realized if they were in the zone, or what kind of pitch it was. I was guessing at the plate, even though I didn’t realize it. That’s what my swings were showing. Just to be back now, I took a step back and I’m enjoying the game. I missed so much time, it’s fun being out there and lacing up the cleats again. I’m just taking at-bats and trying to see the ball again.”

After a rehab stint with the short season Aberdeen Ironbirds, Hays was back with the Baysox on August 7th. He had less than a month in the minors left, but he made the most of it. Over his final 23 games, Hays put up an OPS of .827 and hit six home runs, the same number he hit before going on the DL. That’s a small sample size to be sure, but it was still reassuring and a step in the right direction.

As the minor league season was coming to a close, the Orioles announced that Hays would be playing in the Arizona Fall League later this year. This would give Hays a chance to get those extra reps he missed during the season and also the opportunity to show that he had truly regained form.

Hays seemed to be back on track, but again it wasn’t to be. The ankle injury that knocked him out for two months wasn’t fully resolved and instead of going to the AFL, Hays instead had surgery in mid-September to repair the issue. He’s expected to be ready for spring training 2019 where he will start the whole process over, hopefully without injury this time.

The competition in the outfield will be stiff again next year. While Hays was struggling with performance and injury, outfielders Cedric Mullins and D.J. Stewart were called up to the big leagues. The Orioles traded for a new number one prospect, Yusniel Diaz, who is also an outfielder. Ryan McKenna took a huge step forward as well. But if Hays can truly get back to his 2017 form, my bet is we’ll see him in an Orioles uniform in 2019.