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It’s unclear how Austin Hays fits into the Orioles’ future

The veteran outfielder has had a solid season at the plate, but a declining defensive skillset and a wave of young talent behind could have him on the move this offseason.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Baltimore Orioles Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

As the hopes of an Orioles playoff run dwindle and the last few games of this magical season fall off the calendar, it’s normal for fans to begin thinking about next year. This is a franchise on the upswing with several young pillars of a potential World Series contender in tow and a few others on the way. As fun as 2022 has been, 2023 could be even better.

But time alone won’t be enough for the Orioles to leap from a .500 team to an AL East crown and beyond. Roster changes are on the horizon, and this time they might hurt a little bit.

Up until this point, it has been easy enough to understand most of the moves that Mike Elias and the Orioles’ front office had made. The major league roster was, for the most part, lousy, and most of the changes amounted to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But things have changed. Something special could be brewing in Baltimore, and the team needs to do what it can to avoid wasting a single second of the time they have with such a talented core.

That means doing whatever it takes to upgrade, up and down the roster. At some positions, that need is obvious, like second base, backup catcher, and in the starting rotation. But other areas are more ambiguous, and they could take some serious thought on how the Orioles want to approach a potential change.

One such position on this roster is left field, where Austin Hays has been the most oft-used player, though he has shared the responsibility.

Still only 27, it feels like Hays has been around forever. His major league debut came way back in 2017, when Buck Showalter was still the Orioles manager. But due to a combination of poor play, injuries, and some mismanagement on the team’s part, Hays didn’t claw his way back into the lineup on a full-time basis until 2020.

Since then, Hays has largely been a part of Brandon Hyde’s daily lineup. His position changes around, but his name is a mainstay. That’s a designation he has earned despite streaky play.

Over the last three seasons, Hays owns a .257/.311/.430 slash line with a 103 OPS+ and 41 home runs. Those are numbers that won’t blow anyone away, but they are solid. His lowest OPS+ in that time was 96 in 2020, and his highest was 106 in 2021. He may ebb and flow throughout a season, but Hays is rather consistent year-to-year, and he is clearly a major league talent.

However, away from the plate, Hays has seen his game degrade. Not so long ago, his defense was viewed as a plus with scouting reports indicating that he could be a centerfielder long term. Advanced metrics would seem to disagree at this point as he has posted -7 outs above average in 2022, by far the worst mark of his career. Much of that is due to a “burst” which has gotten worse every season of his career.

Baseball Savant describes “burst” as the feet covered in any direction between 1.6 and 3.0 seconds after a ball is hit towards an outfielder. It is one of the elements used to calculate their “jump” metric, a value in which Hays ranks in the 17th percentile of all outfielders.

You can start to see the problem when you combine a slightly above-average hitter with a defensive profile that is worsening on an annual basis. It creates a fringy type of player that certainly still deserves a spot on a big league roster, but it is unclear if that spot should be in the everyday lineup of a team with playoff aspirations.

Meanwhile, the Orioles have some young players that could be gunning for Hays’ playing time. Kyle Stowers is already in Baltimore, and has lately been working into the corner outfield rotation with more frequency. Colton Cowser, the team’s top pick a year ago, has played at three levels this season and seems destined to knock down the big league door sometime next summer.

Hays is also arbitration-eligible for the first time this offseason. His raise won’t be huge—they rarely are in a player’s first crack at earning what they are worth—but it will eat into what is expected to be an expanded budget for the Orioles this winter. He wouldn’t seem to be at risk of a DFA, but an increased salary could make him a trade candidate if the Orioles think they could install Stowers for similar production or perhaps go big on a free agent or trade target.

Hays isn’t the Orioles’ only veteran outfielder that could be experiencing a similar analysis this offseason. Anthony Santander is having one of the best offensive seasons of his career, but it has come with the complete erosion of his glove. Does it make sense to have a DH-only type when the team wants to rotate Adley Rutschman into the DH spot more frequently? Cedric Mullins has taken a step back from the 30/30 season he had in 2021, but remains one of the best center fielders in baseball. If the team were to be blown away by a trade offer, would they consider it?

These are the tough questions that start to present themself as a team transitions from rebuilding to contending. The big, obvious upgrades that come when swapping out someone like Pedro Severino for Rutschman are no longer possible. Instead, it’s about replacing a good, solid player with someone that has another level to their game. It’s not always obvious how to get that done.

That’s exactly where things are with Hays. There is no doubt that he brings value to this Orioles roster. But this team may need to get just a little more out of one of their everyday corner outfielder spots. It’s up to the front office to figure out how to make that happen.