Anything above last year's 47 wins would amount to progress for the Orioles, who enter the 2019 season with much more modest ambitions than the club that fell short of its one last crack at contending with its old core.
New executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias and the front office plan to use time and resources on the amateur draft (in which the Orioles select first overall), building their analytics and international scouting departments, and revamping the player development system. Even if the major league results don't get much better in the short term as they do that, one thing that can improve are the players themselves.
So in lieu of counting major league wins, this week, we’re counting down five players whose performance in the majors this year can go a long way toward judging the first year of the Elias-Brandon Hyde era of Orioles baseball.
The second on that list is outfielder Austin Hays.
Hays, a 2016 third-round pick out of Jacksonville, spent his first full professional season in 2017 shooting from High-A Frederick to the majors while batting .329 with 32 homers over two minor league stops. He was poised to compete for the Orioles’ everyday right field job after getting his feet wet in the majors that September. Pretty much nothing went according to plan over the ensuing year. Hays, 23, unintentionally swapped out his lithe, lean frame for a more muscular one, and the consequences for that lingered the entire season. Without the same mobility, his shoulder stiffened up in spring training, and he lost the chance to make the club.
He didn't play well early in the season at Double-A Bowie, and all the extra mass he was carrying ended up injuring his ankle. He hit .273 the rest of the season, but ended up getting surgery in September.
All that knocked the shine off Hays, but this spring he's shown himself to be much closer to the player he was in 2017. At his best, he's aggressive in the strike zone with power to all fields but shortens up and goes the other way with two strikes, making him a tough out. His hand quickness allows him to wait on fastballs, react to spin and cover the entire plate.
The entire game at this point revolves around hitting the ball hard in the air, and Hays found out last year that he didn't have to change anything to do that. The next step is harnessing that and focusing on which pitches he can do the most damage on, helping to refine his aggressive approach. Hays has drawn just 50 walks in 1,043 career minor league plate appearances, a 4.8 percent rate.
Getting on base more often will help, but there's more to improving a player's approach than just drawing walks. Orioles hitting coach Don Long — or whichever hitting coach in the minors ends up with Hays if he doesn't make the club — will be tasked with giving him a better idea of what pitches he can handle best and which he should try to lay off.
Hays has the tools to hang in the big leagues and the mentality to stick. To thrive there in 2019, Long and company will do well to try to take a hitter who can get his bat to almost anything and turn him into one who doesn't swing as if that's the case.