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Austin Hays is healthy and nearly ready for the big leagues again

Injuries have stunted the outfielder’s career. Now healthy, he is nearing a big league return.

MLB: Spring Training-Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The shine on the prospect status of Austin Hays has dimmed from what it was a few years ago. Since making his big league debut back in 2017, Hays has been hampered by injuries and poor on-field performances. During that time, the Orioles have added a number of talented youngsters to the organization, and Hays has fallen down the prospect pecking order as a result. Now, the outfielder is seemingly 100% healthy and on target to return to the big leagues sometime this season.

Orioles general manager Mike Elias has made his approach to handling the team’s top prospects quite clear, and it’s a departure from how his predecessor did things. Elias is not interested in promoting players until they have totally proven themselves at a lower level for an extended period of time. It’s part of the reason that Keegan Akin has remained in Triple-A Norfolk despite the big league team’s thin rotation, and why Ryan Mountcastle has continued to plug away with the Tides despite his impressive stat line. The same will be asked of Hays.

It’s easy to forget that Hays is only 23 years old (he will turn 24 next month). Because he was the first player selected in the 2016 MLB Draft to debut in the majors, it feels like his development should be nearly complete, but that’s far from the case. On top of that, he missed half of 2018 with an ankle injury and more than a month so far in 2019 due to issues with his thumb. Those are significant setbacks.

Plate discipline is the term that has swirled around Hays since 2017. He owns a solid-enough .332 career on-base percentage as a minor leaguer, but that is mostly buoyed by a .294 batting average. Even during his breakout 2017 season, Hays walked in less than five percent of plate appearances.

Here is Hays explaining what he was trying to work on at the plate to MASN’s Steve Melewski in April, 2018:

“I feel like I have pretty good pitch recognition. I can see a breaking ball and change-up and off-speed pitches. But it’s a matter of choosing which ones you recognize that you want to swing at. It’s not necessarily the ones I swing at, but the pitches I need to take that I swing at. I just need to have more plate discipline and use the aggressiveness that I have only for pitches I can do damage with instead of pitcher’s pitches.”

The previously mentioned injuries prevented that plan to improve plate discipline from ever fully coming to fruition last season.

However, Hays did bounce back and was impressive at the plate during this past spring training. He slashed .351/.385/.892 with five home runs, three doubles and a triple. But he walked just twice in 39 plate appearances, a 5.1 percent walk rate, against what was typically minor league competition.

Since returning from his latest spat of injuries, Hays has played at three levels in the O’s minor league system. Across 25 games, the Jacksonville University product has walked six times in 108 plate appearances, which is a 5.5-percent walk rate. It’s incremental and it’s a super small sample size, but it’s an improvement.

If you are waiting for Hays to suddenly become a different type of player, you may be disappointed. While his aggressiveness may be frustrating, it is also part of what gives him the chance to be a dangerous hitter. Does that description sound familiar?

Adam Jones is one of the best players in franchise history, and yet he owns a career walk rate of just 4.4 percent plus a career on-base percentage of .318. Jonathan Schoop is another recent example of an explosive O’s hitter that has pedestrian on-base skills. It can happen.

But Hays will need to do other things well should he struggle to get on base with regularity. That could mean turning in above-average defense like Jones did for much of his time with the Orioles, or hitting 30+ home runs as Schoop did in 2017. It’s possible that he’s capable of both.

The positive spin of Hays’s injury setbacks could be that his window of team control has been pushed back to better align with some of the organization’s younger prospects. Adley Rutschman, should he sign, will be expected to rocket through the minors. Grayson Rodriguez and D.L. Hall seem on track to be in Baltimore a few years down the road. Mountcastle could be in Birdland within the year. And whomever the O’s select in the first round next summer could also be a fast riser. That makes for an impressive core of talent all emerging at similar times.

The recent fortification of the O’s minor league system does not necessarily mean that Hays has less of a ceiling than once expected. If anything, it reduces the pressure on the Jacksonville University product to become the franchise cornerstone. Instead, he can focus on his style of play and still be a valuable member of the lineup.