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In Orioles’ short-handed outfield, Austin Hays, DJ Stewart set to earn big roles

"This is completely different than anything that any of us have ever been a part of," said Orioles' infielder Rio Ruiz.

Manager Brandon Hyde spent his first season in charge of the Orioles playing infielders in the outfield and corner guys in center field in 2019. He could have expected this summer to be different.

Trey Mancini was a reliable mainstay at corner outfield with his preferred position of first base still occupied. Anthony Santander was one of the team’s success stories, and before a June concussion knocked his season off course, it appeared the Orioles might have a table-setter in Dwight Smith Jr. Add in rookie outfielder Austin Hays’ dynamic September, and the ingredients for a stable and productive outfield were certainly in place.

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Instead, the club lost Mancini’s invaluable presence both on and off the field due to a March discovery of stage 3 colon cancer and his subsequent surgery and treatment. Smith and Santander haven’t participated in any of the open portions of Orioles workouts through the first five days, leaving Hays and DJ Stewart as the only two true outfielders on the 45-man camp roster and possibly forcing Stevie Wilkerson, Andrew Velazquez, Pat Valaika and Dilson Herrera into the outfield mix.

“We don’t like to be cagey or withhold info. But again, this is a private medical matter for these individual people," said Mike Elias.

While Hyde has stressed the need for versatility of those utility types to fill the void, that’s about surviving, not thriving. Building a successful outfield will require Hays and Stewart to play far above their experience levels without feeling the pressure that will inevitably be on them come July 24.

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“I just want Austin Hays to be Austin Hays,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “What he did in September last year [batting .309 with a .947 OPS and four home runs], I’d love to see him continue that and continue to take the at-bats that he did in September and continue to play the defense that he was [playing].

“He was doing that in spring training. I want him to be himself and play the game he knows how to, and then as you get older, you get more at-bats under your belt and more innings defensively, then you’re going to improve. But he’s an exciting player. I love the way he plays the game and I just want to see him go out there and play and have fun.”

Hays shot to the majors in his first full season after being drafted in 2017 and ended that year as the organization’s top prospect. He battled injuries for most of 2018 and early in 2019 before making his impressive September cameo with the Orioles. He also played well in center field, a relatively new position for him, giving the team a possible impact bat at a position that hasn’t been well-filled since Adam Jones left in 2018.

The 25-year-old Hays won’t put too much pressure on himself given the circumstances, he said.

“If I just continue to play the game that I’ve played ever since I’ve been drafted — I was drafted by a reason for this organization,” Hays said. “They believe in me, and I believe in myself. Im’ very confident in my abilities. If I just continue to work hard and continue to progress, and just stick with it and keep my nose to the grindstone, I have a lot of confidence that I can continue to prove myself at this level.”

Orioles outfielder DJ Stewart watches as some of his teammates take batting practice. Baltimore Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 20, 2020
Orioles outfielder DJ Stewart watches as some of his teammates take batting practice. Baltimore Orioles Spring Training at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. February 20, 2020 (Lloyd Fox/Baltimore Sun)

Stewart made his major league debut late in 2018 but was limited by an ankle injury in 2019 that required offseason surgery. The shutdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic allowed Stewart to be fully healthy in a way he wasn’t in spring training.

The 2015 first-round pick said he wants to show he’s the player who was the Orioles’ minor league player of the month in May 2019, when he earned a promotion from Triple-A Norfolk after batting .457 with 18 extra-base hits and a 1.403 OPS.

He said it’s a “huge opportunity” before him, but he won’t be concerning himself with the depth chart. He’ll just try and take advantage of his health to show he is worth having around.

“I think that me just being able to focus on baseball and getting back into my routine and just being DJ, the guy I was in that month of May before I got called up. That’s who am and who I can be,” Stewart said.

Hyde will get plenty of looks at Stewart in the short-handed outfield once intrasquad games start Wednesday, and likes what he sees so far.

“Last year was a tough year for him from the injury standpoint; didn’t get the at-bats that we’d have loved to have seen him [get] and also the innings defensively, and then spring training he was behind,” Hyde said.

“I’m going to play him as much as possible here in these next 2 1/2 weeks. But he’s come in in great shape and he’s swinging the bat really well right now. Making defense a priority also, getting a lot of extra work in defensively and doing a great job. He has put himself in position to play a lot to really get evaluated the right way.”

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