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The Orioles need peak Austin Hays now more than ever

The Orioles need Austin Hays to continue his hot-hitting with Cedric Mullins sidelined. Hays can provide Baltimore an additional boost by holding his own in center field.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles placed Cedric Mullins on the 10-day injured list and did not provide a specific timeline for his return. Mike Elias and Brandon Hyde both expressed optimism, but the administration took a familiar path of not sharing more information than currently required.

The Orioles miss Mullins when he receives a day off, so any period without the former All Star will take its toll. Elias did express hope that Mullins’ absence will require weeks (as opposed to months), but the groin injury will likely cover a majority of June at a minimum.

Baltimore surprised folks with its first move post-Cedric. The Birds signed Aaron Hicks to a major league deal and immediately added the former Yankee to the active roster. Mark did not hold back with his take yesterday, and it’s difficult to argue with anything he said. The Orioles added an underperforming 33-year-old who failed with New York.

Perhaps Hicks will perform for a week or two to balance out that strong start from Franchy Cordero. Either way, the Orioles should be better off if other players prevent Hicks from seeing the field.

The injuries to Colton Cowser and Kyle Stowers really sting right now. Baltimore will likely provide both youngsters time to recover at Triple-A instead of rushing either into the lineup when healthy. That leaves the Birds with Ryan McKenna and Austin Hays to directly compete with Hicks for time in center.

McKenna looks the part in center field. Nobody will question his defense, but the 26-year-old cooled after a hot start at the dish. McKenna can anticipate some starts against lefties and plenty of continued work as a late-inning defensive replacement.

The real story can start and end with Hays. The righty entered last night with a Top 10 batting average in baseball. Hays held a .356 OBP, a 140 OPS+, and a 1.6 WAR according to Baseball Reference. The former top prospect had scored 27 times and driven in 22 runs in 178 at bats.

The Orioles are no stranger to strong stretches from Hays. Hays slashed .299/.355/.443 last May before dropping off in June. He closed 2021 with a .285/.352/.569 line throughout September and October, and batted .279/.328/.393 over the course of the abridged season in 2020.

Hays resembles an All Star when he’s firing on all cylinders. Unfortunately, he’s battled injuries throughout his career. The bumps and bruises are not always enough to justify a trip to the IL, but they clearly impacted his play. A healthy Hays could maintain his impressive slash line deeper into the season. If anyone wants to knock on wood, now would be the time.

The Orioles answered one question last night. Hyde and the Orioles are still comfortable playing Hays in center field. Hays has watched his defensive metrics drop this season. His -17.1 UZR and -1 Outs Above Average are both well below Mullins totals (-3.1 UZR, +3 OAA). Hays does rank above Mullins with a +0.7 Outfield Arm Runs Above Average.

The Orioles do not need Gold Glove defense from Hays—and they certainly should not expect it from Hicks—but Hays can open a few doors if he can lock down center field in the short term. Hays shifting to center would allow Adam Frazier and Terrin Vavra additional opportunities to share corner duties with Anthony Santander. If Hays struggles in center, the Birds will be forced to rely on Hicks and/or McKenna on a daily basis.

Hays looked comfortable in center field last night. He did not face many challenging plays in the field, but Hays and the Orioles will welcome any luck that comes their way. Still, he did not appear to fear a ball hit in his general direction.

Hyde and the Orioles love positional flexibility. Nobody on the roster, not even McKenna, can completely replace what Mullins brings on defense. Hicks will get his chances, and so will McKenna, but keeping Hays, Frazier and Santander in the lineup could provide the team its best chance to win in the short term.