Throughout spring training, Austin Hays offered the Orioles a glimpse of the player he is when healthy: a dynamic defensive outfielder with power and speed on the offensive side, as well.
But as had been the case after each of his previous displays of such skills, an injury has prevented a longer showing.
Before their series opener with the New York Yankees on Monday, the Orioles placed Hays on the 10-day injured list with a right hamstring strain he suffered during Sunday’s sweep-completing victory against the Boston Red Sox. As a corresponding move, the Orioles recalled outfielder Ryan McKenna from their taxi squad; their No. 25 prospect, per Baseball America, was in the lineup batting ninth and playing right field for his major league debut.
Additionally, right-hander Shawn Armstrong, who was on the IL as a procedural move after being on the paternity list, was activated, with right-hander Cole Sulser optioned to Baltimore’s alternate training site in Bowie.
“Disappointing early in the year to lose Austin,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Pretty optimistic that it’s not going to be very long. It’s a mild strain. It’s a hamstring, so like all hamstrings, you just kind of never know, but I think we’re fairly confident that it won’t be very long.”
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This marks the fourth straight season Hays, 25, has dealt with some kind of ailment.
After he became the first product of the 2016 MLB draft to reach the majors by hitting 32 homers between High-A and Double-A in 2017, he missed most of 2018 with an ankle injury. He returned to shine in 2019′s edition of spring training, only to break a thumb shortly after being reassigned to minor league camp.
Other injuries limited him to 87 games in the minors that season, and the Orioles planned to have him compete in the Arizona Fall League before a rule change prompted them to have him spend September in Baltimore. There, he showed off his skills at the major league level for the first time, posting a .947 OPS and making several highlight plays in center field. But he started the shortened 2020 season slowly and spent about a month on the injured list after a pitch to the back left him with a broken rib.
He finished 2020 on a high, hitting .377 after coming off the IL, and carried that into this spring with a .392 average and 1.192 OPS. Repeatedly, he and Hyde spoke of the importance of health in him having success as a major league. Days into the 2021 season, an injury has delayed that once again.
However, it offers a major league opportunity for McKenna. The Orioles’ fourth-round pick in 2015, McKenna, 24, thrived in the first half of the 2018 season in High-A, batting .377 with an OPS above 1.000 in 67 games. But over the next year and a half, he failed to repeat with Double-A Bowie, hitting .234/.327/.357 at that level.
Outside of a brief stretch on the Orioles’ taxi squad, he spent 2020 at the club’s alternate site. This spring, hitting coach Don Long singled out McKenna as a player who impressed him. With Hays out, McKenna also offers cover in center field behind Cedric Mullins.
Armstrong had a 1.80 ERA in 14 appearances for Baltimore a year ago but missed the team’s first series as he and his wife, Sarah, had their first son, Declan. Sulser, one of the few optionable pitchers on the Orioles’ staff, threw two scoreless innings Sunday and was unlikely to be available for at least the start of the Yankees series. He must remain in the minors for 15 days unless he is promoted in response to a player going on the IL.