During the four days between the end of Triple-A Norfolk’s season and the phone call that told Austin Hays he was coming back to the majors, he had to wait out a hurricane.
Expecting to head to the Arizona Fall League later this month, the Orioles’ No. 6-rated prospect went home to Florida once the Tides’ season ended. There, he and his family prepared for the frightening projections that Hurricane Dorian brought with it.
“It was, like, maybe a five out of 10 normal storm in Florida,” Hays said. “There were barely any palm fronds on the ground, so it was good that it diverted and missed us. That was good to see.”
As was his first game for the Orioles in two seasons. Promoted Saturday for the first time since a September call-up in 2017, Hays entered as a pitch-hitter in the sixth then headed to center field, where he ranged far to his right for the first out of the seventh before making a diving catch to his left a batter later. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde said Hays will be in the lineup for Sunday’s series finale with the Texas Rangers.
“The ball definitely finds you when you come in off the bench," Hays said. "That old metaphor holds true tonight. I know I got a lot of plays out there and didn’t lose too much rest in the last week or anything. It was fun to chase some balls down tonight.
“This is what we work for. This is what I’ve worked the last two years for, to get back here and be in Camden Yards and play for this team again.”
He’ll spend this month auditioning for a job in 2020. The Orioles will likely give Hays, 24, every opportunity to break camp with them next season, and September could serve as a chance to showcase himself as their center fielder of the future.
Hays first established that potential in 2017, when he hit 32 home runs across two minor league levels before struggling in the majors in September. He battled ankle injuries throughout 2018, playing only 75 games. He was productive in major league camp this spring, but he suffered a thumb injury shortly after moving to the minor league side. Once Hays got settled after his mid-May return, a hamstring issue cost him two weeks.
Those lost at-bats are why the Orioles planned to send him to the Arizona Fall League to get two months of extra playing time, rather than call him up for a month of irregular playing time in the majors. Unlike previous years, it seemed unlikely the Orioles would be able to have Hays spend September with them before heading to the AFL, with the offseason league beginning play in mid-September rather than its usual October start. Instead, a rule change this week allowed players on 40-man rosters to join the AFL partway through its season, so Hays got the call Friday that brought him to the majors for the first time in two years.
"I understood where it came from,” Hays said of the Orioles’ original decision not to promote him. “I was hurt again this year. I missed games, and they wanted me to get some more reps and be able to evaluate me that much more and it was good for my development, so I understood where it was coming from.
“But I wanted to get back to the big leagues this year, and one way or another, it worked out.”
Hays is likely alone on the major league roster in being a long-term option in center field. The Orioles’ 2019 Opening Day center fielder, Cedric Mullins, hit for the cycle Saturday as Double-A Bowie clinched a spot in the Eastern League Championship Series, but he’s only with the Baysox after massively struggling with the Orioles and Tides. Stevie Wilkerson and Anthony Santander have been Baltimore’s primary center fielders lately, but both entered 2019 having never played there in their minor or major league careers.
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Mason Williams, a 28-year-old who had stints with the New York Yankees and Cincinnati Reds the past four years, earned a promotion with an .848 OPS as Hays’ teammate in Norfolk and represents a stopgap option as the Orioles continue to evaluate Hays and Mullins.
“He was somebody that we wanted to get a look at at the major league level as somebody who could potentially be a center field option for us in the event that Hays or Mullins or the other contenders for that position aren’t ready or aren’t ready to step up,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said.
In addition to Santander, Wilkerson and Williams, Hays will be sharing playing time with DJ Stewart, Dwight Smith Jr. and occasionally Trey Mancini on the outfield corners. Outside of Mancini and Santander, the Orioles’ two most productive hitters, Hyde said he would rotate through the remaining outfielders, including Hays.
“We’ve got a lot of outfielders that we want to see,” Elias said. “But we felt that the right thing to do was to call him up at this point once the rule change came out, and we’ll get him as much playing time as makes sense."
It’s partly on Hays, then, to prove he deserves to play, and the ability to play center he showed Saturday should help those efforts. Hyde received positive reports throughout the year from Norfolk manager Gary Kendall on Hays as a center fielder and enjoyed the energy he saw Hays play with out there in spring training.
Hays said he was more comfortable in the position this year than previous seasons, crediting experience accumulating over time for that comfort. Now, Hays hopes to put that on display in Camden Yards, trying to make next year’s time in the majors more than another September call-up.
“The next three weeks, I just want to compete at a high level and have competitive at-bats every night,” he said “Just show this team what I have and what I can do and try to help the guys win games."