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Now healthy, Austin Hays seems to be settling into his big league role

The oft-injured outfielder has started to heat up and show off the kind of player he could be for a long time to come.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Detroit Tigers Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

There is often an expectation, fair or not, among baseball fans that once a player is named to a “Top 100 Prospect” list, they are on the fast track to stardom. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that, and Austin Hays’ journey from being the first player in his draft class to debut in the big leagues to an oft-injured minor leaguer and back again could be Exhibit A.

Hays was a third-round pick by the Orioles in 2016 out of Jacksonville University. After tearing up minor league pitching for a year, the then-22-year-old Hays got his first big league call-up. It was a tough 20-game stretch, but it did not dissuade national publications from heaping praise on the youngster. Baseball America ranked him as the 21st-best prospect in the game prior to the 2018 season. Since then, it has been a topsy-turvy ride for Hays that has seen him endure injuries and poor play on the field to fight his way back into the major league picture.

In that time he has seen one of his peers, Cedric Mullins, pass him and become the team’s starting center fielder positioned atop the lineup on a daily basis. It’s a role that many more envisioned for Hays several years ago. But the Jacksonville product has adapted and provided above-average defense in the corner positions. More importantly, he has shaken some early-season injuries to become an everyday option for Orioles’ manager Brandon Hyde.

Hays went down with a hamstring injury in the very first series of the season. He missed two weeks. Another hamstring injury took him out for nearly three weeks in late May. Since then, Hays has been healthy, and Hyde has protected him on occasion, often starting him on the bench or only using him as a late-inning replacement. In August, however, he’s been let loose.

Hays has played every inning of every Orioles game this month. It’s going rather well. Over 13 games, Hays owns a .268/.281/.446 batting line, and he has had a hit in all but one game. Those numbers aren’t going to turn anyone’s head; they are right around league-average. But they represent a giant leap forward for Hays, who despite seeing action in four separate big league seasons has only played in 160 career games at the level.

Hays has played in just 24 more games than Ryan Mountcastle, who is in the middle of his rookie season. And while it would be unfair to think of Hays as a rookie (he will have over two years of service time at the conclusion of this season), it’s not entirely off-base either.

It can be easy to forget since it feels like he has been around forever at this point (Hays’ first big league manager was Buck Showalter, after all), but Hays is still just 26 years old, and he does not have a ton of major league experience to this point. While the odds of him ever living up to the “Top 100 Prospect” hype are greatly diminished, it is also quite likely that we are not seeing the fully finished product either.

Oddities in his game are still being discovered. Was Hays ever known as a lefty-specialist type of hitter? It sure looks like it on paper this season. He owns a .902 OPS against southpaws while righties have held him to a .608 OPS. That could change how he is used going forward if it is to be believed.

Perhaps the biggest knock of all on Hays has been his inability to stay on the field. Staying healthy can, to a certain degree, be a skill too; one that comes with age, experience, and an understanding what your body and can and cannot do. Hays is incredibly athletic, and has likely lived much of his life being able to do whatever he wanted on a baseball field without physical repercussions. That has changed as a professional, and he needs to protect himself in order to have a lengthy career in the game.

How Hays approaches his health can impact everything else. For a while in 2019, Hays looked like he could have a Gold Glove in his future. He was willing to sacrifice his body to make the play, and it paid off in highlight reel catches. Those catches can still happen, but perhaps with less regularity. Way back in 2017, Hays ranked in the 92nd percentile in sprint speed. He’s down to the 57th percentile now. Leg injuries and age slow players down, but Hays is still not “slow,” and he doesn’t seem to have trouble scoring from second on a base hit or tracking down fly balls in the outfield.

It’s unclear what sort of role Hays settles into for his MLB career. Stardom may prove out of reach, but he has shown that he can be a versatile, productive player when healthy. Given all that he has experienced as a professional that should be seen as an accomplishment, not a disappointment.