As the Orioles emerge from a lengthy rebuild, the roster decisions will only become more difficult. It started last season as the team decided to part with fan favorite Trey Mancini, and it will continue into the winter as Mike Elias looks towards “lift off,” which could have consequences for other familiar faces. Austin Hays certainly falls into that bucket of players at risk.
The former Top 100 prospect is now a 27-year-old veteran with two full major league seasons under his belt. He made his MLB debut back in 2017, when Buck Showalter was still managing the team. Hays became the first member of the 2016 draft class to play in the majors after rocketing through the Orioles farm system. But injuries and uneven performances slowed his progress until September of 2020, when a hot conclusion to the COVID season cemented him as an everyday member of the lineup.
Since then, Hays has provided solid, yet unspectacular, production in the lineup, and an outfield glove that went from a strength a season ago to an analytic liability in 2022.
Let’s start with the bat. Across the board, Hays took a step back from hitting .256/.308/.461 with 22 home runs and a 107 OPS+ in 2021 to hitting .250/.306/.413 with 16 home runs and a 103 OPS+. The big gulf exists in the power department, where he lost nearly 50 points on his slugging percentage and accumulated four fewer bases overall despite appearing in 14 more games year over year.
Looking at some expanded stats, Hays’ patience at the plate remained relatively constant. He actually struck out slightly less often (from 20.2% to 19.6%) and walked more frequently (5.3% to 5.8%) than he did the previous season.
But when he did put the ball in play, he did so with less authority. Overall, his average exit velocity was down by 1 mph and his barrel rate was nearly cut in half from 9.1% to 5.2%.
This was not the case for the entire season. In fact, Hays was arguably the team’s best hitter in the season’s first half. Through July 4, Hays had a .271/.327/.459 batting line with 11 home runs. He missed the game on July 5 with a wrist ailment, but returned to the lineup on July 6 and had sporadic absences for the injury throughout the remainder of the season, although he avoided the IL. From July 5 through the end of the year, Hays hit .226/280/.358 with five home runs.
Staying off the IL was an important feat for Hays. He told MASN’s Steve Melewski as much at the season’s end.
“Personally I think it was a big win for me to stay healthy from the start to the end of the year,” Hays said. “I had a really, really solid first half. The second half I was very inconsistent and had a couple of bad stretches where I went down (in the stats). But overall I learned a lot this year and am happy with how my personal year went.”
But it’s reasonable to look back on his season, see how a dip in performance lines up with an apparent injury, and wonder if maybe a brief IL stint would have better served both the player and the team. In that same piece, Hays points out that he probably lost a few home runs and points in his slugging percentage to the new dimensions at Camden Yards. That’s a fair point for a righty that pulls most of his extra-base hits. But that didn’t seem to be as much of a problem for him prior to his wrist injury.
The more puzzling area where Hays saw his production lessen was in the field. Defense has always seemed like a strength of his game, and even in 2022 he seemed to pass the eye test. But that doesn’t align with advanced metrics, which say he was worth -6 outs above average and he rated well below-average for outfielder jump. However, he gets points for arm strength as he set a new personal record with a max throw of 100.6 mph, by far the best on the Orioles and in the top 10% of all players.
Perhaps this is another area where Oriole Parks’ new dimensions hurt Hays. Left field had more space to cover, and he had to learn it right alongside visiting players. Or perhaps it is a side effect of a player aging and losing some of the burst that he once had. Either way, it is a disappointing trend.
If the Orioles are going to make a jump from an 83-win team into a real contender, they need to make improvements. An outfield shakeup of some kind could allow them to do that.
Outfield is an area of relative depth for this organization. Cedric Mullins is one of the best centerfielders in the league. Kyle Stowers is already a big leaguer, and Colton Cowser could quickly ascend and step into the starting lineup. Leveraging a controllable talent like Hays or Anthony Santander as part of a deal along with prospects to land starting pitching would make a lot of sense.
Otherwise, Hays should stick around. He is arbitration eligible for the first time in his career this winter. His projected salary of $3.5 million is a bargain, particularly if you believe him to be closer to the player he was pre-injury.
Hays still flashes the potential that allowed him to cruise through the minors. That feels like reason enough to roll the dice, hang onto him, and perhaps get him more frequent days off if that allows him to tap into that ability more often.
Monday: Keegan Akin