Outfielder Austin Hays, the top prospect in the Orioles farm system who hit his way from High-A Frederick to the major leagues in his first full professional season in 2017, was optioned to Double-A Bowie before Saturday's home Grapefruit League finale.
Hays, who missed almost two weeks of camp with shoulder soreness that required a cortisone shot, hit .300 (9-for-30) with a pair of doubles once he returned from the injury, and ended the spring batting .243.
“He had that problem with his shoulder,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It was kind of a climb for him since then, rushing to get back. We tried to take it slow with him, but he's healthy and ready to go. I think he''ll take a deep breath and continue his climb through our system. He got to the big leagues last year, and we took a look at him. We hope he'll be an option again.”
The emergence of Rule 5 outfielder Anthony Santander, who was likely going to make the roster anyway but now looks like a contributor, plus the team's spring singings of Craig Gentry and Alex Presley — who are battling for a fifth outfield spot — made Hays, 22, surplus to requirements on the Opening Day roster.
Despite his major league time last year, when he hit .217 in 60 September at-bats after he hit .329 with 32 home runs and 32 doubles between Frederick and Bowie, Hays was optioned to Bowie again.
Showalter said Bowie is a place where Hays can still benefit from more at-bats, considering he was only there for two months. The Orioles had a similar plan for Trey Mancini in 2016 after he ended the season well in Bowie. He returned there for about two weeks, dominated and was at Triple-A Norfolk the rest of the way before his September call-up.
“Just some things to finish off there,” Showalter said. “He really doesn't have that many at-bats at Double-A. I'm sure he'll follow a similar path [to Mancini]. Hopefully that'll be up to him. He still has some work like all young players do, but we like him a lot.”
Hays will play regularly wherever he is, and if the Orioles keep him down until May 10, they'll get an extra year of club control before he hits free agency. He was the Orioles’ top prospect this offseason, according to Baseball America, which rated him the No. 21 prospect in the game.
The team now has 36 players in camp, with three — Mark Trumbo (quad), Zach Britton (Achilles) and Gabriel Ynoa (shin) — all set to start the season on the disabled list.