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One for the future: Evaluating Orioles prospect Austin Hays

Without much to look forward to this year in terms of the major league club, which is on its way to one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Orioles' focus will shift toward the next generation of players they hope will help reverse that before long.

The regular "One for the Future" feature, which began in mid-July, will highlight an Orioles minor leaguer who is on the radar for either prospect status, performance or pedigree.

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Next, a look at outfielder Austin Hays, whose return from injury this month has saved the season for the Orioles’ offseason top prospect after a disappointing start.

The past

After a year at Seminole State in Florida, Hays went to Jacksonville, where he burst onto the scene in his junior year by batting .350 with 16 home runs and 16 doubles for the Dolphins, leading the Orioles to take him in the third round of the 2016 draft and send him to Short-A Aberdeen, where a wrist injury limited him in his debut season.

The symmetry of his line in Jacksonville would define his breakout 2017 season, as Hays hit 16 homers with 15 doubles while batting .328 with a .956 OPS in 64 games for High-A Frederick and 16 home runs and 17 doubles, a .330 average and a .960 OPS for Double-A Bowie before the Orioles added him in early September for the stretch run.

His introduction to the big leagues was a difficult one, as he hit .217 with four extra-base hits in 20 games, sending him into the offseason with plenty to think about despite one of the best statistical seasons in all the minors.

The present

Hays, 23, came into spring training poised to compete for a roster spot at the major league level, the chances of which were much higher before the Orioles added the likes of Colby Rasmus and Craig Gentry on minor league contracts. Hays dealt with a stiff shoulder that limited him in spring training and never really allowed him to get going, though he said he was healthy and felt like he was ready for a big season once things began at Bowie.

That never materialized. Evaluators who watched the Baysox early saw a player who had become overly pull-conscious and had lost a lot of the plate coverage that gave him all-fields power that made him so dangerous in his first full season. He was still playing a standout outfield, but an ankle injury became too much to play through in late May and he went on the disabled list batting .224 with a .633 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 43 games.

Upon his return, Hays eliminated some of the aspects of his swing that made it such a challenge to cover the entire plate, and his all-fields approach has paid dividends for the Baysox. He entered Friday batting .284 with an .828 OPS and 12 extra-base hits in 19 games since being activated from the DL, spraying the ball to the entire field. He has, however, closed off his batting stance some, which he has worked out in this short stint but could open up holes on the inside half of the plate once teams realize he has adjusted to the steady stream of pitches on the outer half that he’s been getting.

The future

The Orioles have to be breathing easier now that Hays has shown himself to be healthy and largely the same player he was a season ago since his return from the ankle injury. Serious doubts emerged in some parts of the organization about how they should view him after last year’s success in the minors and struggles in the majors, which combined with a shaky spring and his near-lost season would have meant he’d played just as much good baseball as the opposite in two years since he was drafted.

But watching Hays this month shows many of the same attributes that made him the Orioles’ top prospect according to Baseball America last offseason. His bat speed and quick hands are still there, as is the pull power early in counts. But he’s also shown a willingness to look up the middle and the other way late in counts and make adjustments, a trait that evaluators didn’t see much of early in the year.

He’s played all over the outfield and shown a plus arm and strong instincts with the foot speed to make all the plays. Had the Orioles not traded for outfielder Yusniel Díaz last month, Hays has shown enough in his return from injury to ensure he’d have likely kept his top prospect status thanks to his ability to contribute in all phases of the game, though there would have been a push from Bowie teammate Ryan Mountcastle and last year’s top pick, DL Hall.

Some pockets of the organization believe it would be best for Hays not to be added to the roster in September and instead focus on being ready for the Arizona Fall League, where he can extend his season into November and get consistent playing time against level-appropriate competition, likely carrying a good feeling into the offseason.

But there’s some urgency for Hays and the rest of the Orioles’ outfield prospects — and there are plenty of them — to hurry up and get established in the majors. By this time next year, the team could have Hays, Cedric Mullins, Díaz and DJ Stewart trying to lock down everyday roles in the major league outfield, with the distinct possibility that Trey Mancini is still in left field.

Mullins is getting a head start with his addition in August, but the opportunities elsewhere could end up being grabbed by the ones who get them first, so Hays will want to ensure he gets his chance early.

One for the future

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