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Orioles prospect Austin Hays finding form in healthy stint at Triple-A Norfolk: ‘The trend is up with Austin’

Triple-A Norfolk manager Gary Kendall is one of the few remaining people in the Orioles organization who witnessed the breakout season outfielder Austin Hays put together in 2017, before his September call-up that year and the two seasons of injuries that came after it.

As Hays puts together his most significant stretch of healthy baseball since that year in 2017 with High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie, the former Baysox manager says he’s finally starting to see flashes of that player showing up in the second half with the Tides.

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“It’s more consistent,” Kendall said. “At first, he was trying to do so much, trying to get three hits every time he came up for an at-bat. But now, the power is starting to come back, and he’s getting more acclimated and getting more repetition with his work habits, and hopefully we can keep him healthy and go into the offseason and just continue that. He’s missed a lot of at-bats, a lot of time.

“The trend is up with Austin, and he’s putting in the work, and hopefully he can continue with it.”

Hays, the Orioles’ 2016 third-round draft pick, has had some stop-and-start years since that first full season, in which he hit .329/.365/.593 with 32 doubles and 32 home runs over two levels. He became the first 2016 draftee to reach the majors, but hasn’t returned.

He overdid it with his offseason training after that September cup-of-coffee and was beset by ankle injuries while back at Double-A Bowie in 2018, ultimately requiring surgery.

He came to camp leaner and with his athleticism restored in 2019, and despite a strong spring, was ticketed for Triple-A Norfolk before injuring his thumb in minor league camp. A hamstring injury also required an injured list trip, and through Sunday, he’d managed just 80 games this season, including his rehabilitation assignments.

The Orioles' Tim Beckham (1) congratulates Austin Hays (18) after Hays hit a two-run home run against the New York Yankees in the ninth inning Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in New York.
The Orioles' Tim Beckham (1) congratulates Austin Hays (18) after Hays hit a two-run home run against the New York Yankees in the ninth inning Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017, in New York. (Julie Jacobson / AP)

Hays was batting .216 with a .607 OPS when he came off the injured list to start the second half with the Tides and is batting .257/.310/.480 with eight home runs and 12 doubles in 42 games since. He’s also stolen six bases in eight tries, trying to utilize his speed more than he has in the past, and is playing center field as the Orioles look for a solution at that problem position.

“He’s playing center field very well, the corners very well for us,” Kendall said. “His arm is really good, and he throws accurately to bases. He’s stolen some bases during this stretch here, and that was something he really never did in his career, stealing bases, and he’s starting to do that more. I like what I see.”

Whether Hays will make his major league return in September when rosters expand remains unclear. More regular playing time at first base for Trey Mancini with Chris Davis being phased out of the lineup opens up some outfield playing time for him, but that’s already a crowded position group with DJ Stewart, Anthony Santander, Stevie Wilkerson and Jace Peterson in Baltimore. Dwight Smith Jr. seems likely to return when rosters expand after his rehab at Norfolk turned into a minor league assignment.

Hays’ ability to play center field and the Orioles’ interest in having him do that long-term might mean he could be added in September and get an extended look there, with Santander and Wilkerson shuffled to the corners. There isn’t the impediment of needing to add him to the 40-man roster, as Hays was added in 2017. More pressing is the fact that after using two minor league options in the past two seasons, he’ll have just one entering 2020.

It’s also possible that the Orioles don’t see the playing time available to Hays in the big leagues and ticket him for the Arizona Fall League, which begins Sept. 18, giving him a month of regular at-bats to make up for lost time this year.

Given the time he’s had on the shelf, consistent baseball at any level will be what the organization seeks for Hays as he enters a pivotal 2020 season.

“It’s just getting back to being out on the field, the consistency of being out in the field, and his work habits that he applies and the aggression that he plays with,” Kendall said. Just letting it go and just playing, and not being tentative about the leg, or any of the injuries he’s had, just putting it behind him, and just going out and playing the kind of baseball he should be playing. That’s what we’re seeing more of.”

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