SARASOTA, FLA. — Rookie outfielder Austin Hays looks across the Orioles spring clubhouse at his friend Ryan Mountcastle and sees a common future that is no longer so far away.
They have played together in the minor leagues for much of the past three seasons and have had plenty of time to wonder just when their day will come. So, when the two of them erupted for big offensive performances in Thursday’s exhibition game at Ed Smith Stadium, Hays couldn’t help but look back and forth at the same time.
It’s only spring, but this is what they envisioned on those long bus rides in the Eastern League and a game like that makes it seem as if it’s only a matter of time before they’re flying charter and seeing their names on the same big league lineup card on a regular basis.
“Yeah, we said that when we were younger," Hays said. “Me and Mountcastle played together for three years now and it seems like we always tend to put those good games together. We feed off each other. It’s nice to see when a lot of the young guys are playing well, like [Thursday’s] game, and everybody had two hits in the lineup. So just to get to see that and see where the future is going is good.”
Hays is feeling pretty good about himself this spring, which is no small thing in a sport where something as basic as self-confidence plays a huge role in the development of a top prospect. There’s no way to gauge where he, Mountcastle or any of the other promising young players will be in a month, a year or beyond, but that vision of themselves excelling in the major leagues is obviously shared by an organization that would like to start showing signs of competitive life by the start of the 2021 season.
“Absolutely," manager Brandon Hyde said Saturday. “I think that you’re excited about how a lot of our young players are playing and what kind of players they can be, from [Anthony] Santander to Hays to Mountcastle to [Yusniel] Diaz. You watch Adley’s at-bats, even though he’s not getting the results that he wants, but you can see the presence in the box. I think we have a real nice young core that’s going to be exciting going forward and it’s nice to watch them out here.”
The Orioles have felt good about Hays for a while now. He had a terrific spring last year, batting .351 with five homers and 13 RBIs in just 37 at-bats, but his progress was stunted when he suffered a thumb injury stealing second base in a minor league camp game in late March. He returned to game action in mid-May at High-A Frederick and passed through both Bowie and Norfolk before joining the Orioles in September and looking very much like he belonged on the big league roster.
He batted .309, drove the ball with authority and made enough exciting plays in the outfield to leave new Orioles rotation candidate Tommy Milone non-plussed when Hays helped him out with a diving catch on Thursday. Milone said he wasn’t surprised because he saw Hays make a couple of similar plays when he was in town with the Mariners last September.
Obviously, Hays didn’t let the fallout from the thumb injury leave him hesitant to tone down his aggressiveness in the outfield and on the bases.
“No, it’s just how I play," he said. “If I have a chance to dive for a ball in the outfield and help my pitcher on the mound, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s how I play. That’s how I was raised and I think that’s the only way to play the game.”
If last spring ended up being a false start for Hays, he said that experience — and his performance in September — helped him come to camp this spring comfortable in his ability to show that he belongs in the Orioles lineup.
“It just gives you a little bit more confidence,” Hays said, “knowing if I can do what I did last year, which I know I’m capable of doing because I’ve shown up at spring training and played well before, that I’ll be on the team. It’s nice to know that.”