The Orioles have big hopes for outfield prospect Austin Hays, so much so that within the organization, the club believes that the team’s likely Minor League Player of the Year could be the starting right fielder as soon as next season.
But since being called up Sept. 5 — while the Orioles continue to search for a spark to keep their fading playoff aspirations alive as they slide down the standings with six straight loses entering Wednesday night’s series finale — Hays has barely been seen on the field.
And while handing the reins to a prospect in the middle of a pennant race has risks, especially in a veteran-laden clubhouse like the Orioles’, right field has become an offensive black hole.
Hays entered Wednesday with just three major league at-bats. He made one start, Saturday in Cleveland, going 0-for-2 before Smith pinch-hit for him late in the game. On Thursday, he batted for Smith and grounded out to end the game.
Meanwhile, since Hays’ call-up, the other players manning right field are a combined 2-for-19 with seven strikeouts, and one of those hits was a solo home run Monday by Mark Trumbo, usually the designated hitter.
The platoon of Smith and Rickard has gone cold. Smith, who starts most nights against right-handed pitching, had been one of the team’s better hitters during the second half of the season, posting a .979 OPS (including a .440 on-base percentage) in 33 games leading into September, but since the calendar has turned, he’s just 2-for-20 entering Wednesday. He is eligible for free agency at the end of the season.
Rickard was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk in mid-August as part of a roster crunch, and he hit just .191 in 13 games with the Tides before returning when rosters expanded at the beginning of this month, but he was just 2-for-17 in September entering Wednesday.
With Craig Gentry unable to play defense because of a broken right middle finger, Showalter has stuck with Smith and Rickard in right field instead of breaking in Hays, who hit 32 homers and had a .958 OPS this season between Bowie and High-A Frederick, and is considered a plus defender at the corner outfield spots. Sixteen of his homers came in Double-A, which is commonly seen as the proving ground for prospects.
“Have I been tempted?” Showalter said Wednesday, when asked whether he’s considered more playing time for Hays. “Sure. I’ve thought about it a lot. The same way with [Chance] Sisco, the same way with [Anthony] Santander. There will come a time. We’re not there yet. We’ve got a pretty good idea about the best way to develop young players, and his time will come.”
Showalter is a manager who leans on track record, and he has to be wary that playing the team’s prospects could give a message that the Orioles are conceding the season — they entered Wednesday 4½ games behind the second off two American League wild-card spots with 17 games to play — but in the case of Hays, he’d be filling a position in need of a jolt.
“There’s certain things that people have a track record and they’re not performing to it,” Showalter said. “Right field is not the only position [not performing well]. OK? So there are a lot of things, but you’re just hoping that guys that are capable of getting real hot for an extended period of time can do it. It’s still going to be dictated by pitching.”
Showalter is correct that the Orioles have overall struggled offensively. They’ve averaged just 2.63 runs per game in September entering Wednesday, the lowest offensive output in the majors. The Orioles have faced strong pitching this month, and favorable matchups are greatly negated by roster expansion, and the club ran into a Cleveland Indians team that set an AL record Wednesday with its 21st straight win. Regardless of the opposition, the Orioles are running out of time to make their season memorable.
Hays could play during the Orioles’ four-game series at Yankee Stadium, which begins Thursday, as New York lists left-handers Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia on Saturday and Sunday. When Trey Mancini was a September call-up last year, he cut his teeth against left-handed pitching, so Showalter could do the same with Hays, even though he had an .867 OPS against right-handers in the minors this season
Over the years, the Orioles have injected a shot of youthful energy when needed late in the season. Mancini’s September call-up is one example, and the early-August call-up of Manny Machado to man third base gave a 2012 club that had never been in a playoff race a boost.
That time hasn’t come yet for Hays.
“So I guess your readers are wanting to know why he’s not playing right field,” Showalter quipped. “It’s a good question. I’d like to play him more. I really would. You know, we always consider the unknown being better than what’s there. We’ll see.”