Rookie Austin Hays didn’t think he’d still be a rookie this spring, but he is back in camp after September ankle surgery and said he’s ready to join in the competition for an outfield spot in the majors.
Hays, 23, got a taste of the big leagues at the end of the 2017 season and came to camp last year as a spring training pick to click, but struggled from the outset and never got the call. Instead, he played mostly at Double-A Bowie and struggled to play through a sore ankle.
Now, he’s healthy again and hoping to turn the first negative experience of his pro baseball career into a positive that propels him onto the Opening Day roster.
“It was a very big learning experience,’’ said Hays, who arrived in camp Friday. “I had never had surgery. I never had gone through a skid like I went through last year. I’d never gone through a real rehab either. It was a big learning experience going through those things. Staying positive through all those things, I learned a lot about myself and my character — just how to deal with things that aren’t going my way.”
Hays blames his struggles last spring on his decision to come into camp bulkier than before.
“Yeah, a big focus for me since I was in college or even in high school, I always had a smaller body frame,” he said, “so I’d work really hard to get bigger, get stronger, gain weight and finally I actually started doing those things instead of just strength.
“I started to gain a lot of weight and I was a lot heavier than I had been last year. So I was tighter, I couldn’t move around the same way. I think that might have had something to do with the overall health last year.”
Whether that led to the left ankle soreness that eventually was revealed as a fracture is open to debate, but it did negatively affect his running mechanics, so he spent the offseason running and retraining himself. He also dropped some weight.
“I just had noticed that I started running differently because my ankle started to hurt, so I built up some bad habits,’’ he said, “So when I first started coming back, I was running with the weight on the inside part of my foot differently than I had usually run. So, I had to reinforce where my foot should be hitting the ground and where the weight should be.”
Going from Double-A to the majors would be a big jump, but the Ed Smith Stadium complex is a land of opportunity this spring. The right field job is wide open and somebody will stick as a fourth outfielder.
The line is long and Hays will have to have an impressive spring to get back to the front of it, but that’s the case for just about everyone who doesn’t have an assured spot on the 25-man roster.
“I’m on the 40-man,’’ he said. “I’m here to do my best and try to win a job. That’s what we’re all here to do. There’s going to be opportunities. We’ve just got to take advantage of them where we get them.”