When Orioles rookie outfielder Austin Hays began his professional career last year, his friends around the game — other minor leaguers navigating their own paths through their respective organizations — told him the key was to get to Double-A and succeed there. If he could do that, he'd quickly find himself on the doorstep of the major leagues.
"I guess one thing that was told to me right when I got drafted was your goal in the minor leagues is to get to Double-A and once you get there you're one phone call away," Hays said. "The goal was to get to Double-A by the end of the season and see what I could do there and keep playing the game the way I know how to play and anything could happen, and sure enough it did."
Hays' progression through the Orioles minor league system was swifter than most. The Orioles' third-round pick in the June 2016 draft, he skipped Low-A Delmarva, opened this season at High-A Frederick and earned a midseason promotion to Double-A Bowie before being called up to the major leagues Sept. 5 shortly after rosters expanded for the season's final full month.
Increasingly across baseball prospects aren't required to cut their teeth in Triple-A to receive a major league call-up.
This month, the Orioles have promoted two of their top prospects from Bowie, Hays and hard-throwing left-hander Tanner Scott, to get a feel for the big leagues in September.
The Orioles' current roster includes seven players who have been promoted directly from Bowie.
While some prospects went through Triple-A Norfolk — outfielder Trey Mancini and catcher Chance Sisco being examples — it's clear the Orioles aren't mandating that path these days and that Triple-A has become more of a stocking area for organizational depth instead of top prospects.
"It used to be prospects got finished off [in Triple-A], but if you look at Double-A baseball nowadays, that's where most of the up-and-coming, the projection prospects are," Showalter said. "That's where most of the trades are happening from. Like Chance Sisco was an exception to that this year. Mancini getting a year there, that was an exception. … I don't think there's any blueprint exactly. That's the way it used to be done. It doesn't mean it was right."
Since the Orioles called third baseman Manny Machado up from Bowie to man the everyday third base position in August 2012, several other key players have followed suit. The club has plucked several relievers from Bowie, including right-hander Mychal Givens and left-hander Donnie Hart. And this month, Hays and Scott were called up.
While Machado made the jump from Double-A, second baseman Jonathan Schoop — who came through the system with Machado --- went to Norfolk before advancing to the major leagues. Getting seasoning in Triple-A — and building a resume of success at every level — helped Mancini transition to the majors and quickly earn a starting spot.
"It's a lot more almost like a chess match in a sense there with pitchers and stuff," Mancini said about experiencing Triple-A last season. "It's an interesting level as far as that goes. Talent-wise, I think Double-A and Triple-A are pretty similar. But I think the pitchers have a better idea what they're doing in Triple-A, so that's the biggest challenge."
Givens, who received two brief call-ups from Bowie before sticking in August 2015, was one of the first players to be promoted directly from Bowie. He said the message given to him from then-Baysox pitching coach and current Orioles bullpen coach Alan Mills was that Bowie's vicinity to Baltimore made it possible that the major league club in need of a relief arm in a hurry could pluck one from Double-A.
"The biggest thing that Millsy emphasized to me was telling me, 'Hey, you're just down the street from Camden Yards, so just keep pitching well, keep doing what you can control and keep your faith and you'll be up there,' " Givens said. "I think I got lucky, Donnie got a little lucky. It's better to be lucky than sorry."
The major league team's needs come into play, as was the case with the timing of the call-ups of Givens and Hart.
Hays dominated each level, combining to hit 32 homers and posting a .958 OPS, and he needed just 64 games in Double-A to earn a call-up. He said being able to thrive in the Eastern League, a proving ground for prospects and power arms, helped him trust his abilities.
"I think the biggest thing was just learning to be confident in myself and not to get down on myself because I made the jump fast and there were a lot of questions about [whether] was I ready for it," Hays said. "Are they moving me too fast? And I proved that I could play at that level and that I could hang with all those guys, so I think just having confidence in myself was the biggest thing I learned there, just to always be confident going up knowing I could compete with anybody."
Mancini and Sisco said the Triple-A seasoning allowed them to be around and compete against more players with major league experience.
"You've got a lot of pitchers there with major league experience, so they know what they're doing," Mancini said. "They know how to attack hitters. They kind of know guys' tendencies and stuff. So it's similar to here in that you see a lot more 3-1 changeups and breaking balls. Things like that help prepare you for the majors. But at the same time, I don't think it's totally necessary for some guys to go there, especially defensively if they don't need the seasoning with things like that. You see so many guys getting called up from Double-A now. It seems like it's more of the norm now for a lot of people."
Sisco, who was among the youngest player in the International League at 22, echoed that benefit of Triple-A, adding that he gained experience as a catcher working with more veteran pitchers.
"Being in Triple-A helped me working with a pitching staff," Sisco said. "We had a really good pitching staff in Bowie, but we didn't have too many older guys, so for me personally, it was good working with the older, veteran guys who had major league experience. I know that we had more big league time than some of the major league teams at the end of the season, so to be around those guys, and most of them being pitchers, it helped me tremendously.
"For any catcher, if it were up to me, I'd recommend them going to Triple-A, especially being a young catcher, because you do get that time to work with older guys like that through the whole season."
The current Orioles roster includes five players who were members of the 2015 Bowie team that won the Eastern League title — Givens, Hart, Mancini, Sisco and right-hander Jimmy Yacabonis. Some received the call from Double-A, others took a detour to Norfolk first, but their paths have all led to the big leagues.
"I think the landscape of our game has obviously changed [with] people coming through the system," Showalter said. "You've heard me talk about how remarkable it was for Mancini, how unusual it is for him to make a stop at each level, and that worked out pretty good. Did Manny need to play another year and play at Triple-A? … It doesn't look like it. You don't want to say, everybody's got to do this. Each case you take a little differently. Let's face it, look at Hays' experience level in the minor leagues. That's a pretty big jump."