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Austin Hays’ pending return means Brandon Hyde will have fully stocked Orioles outfield for first time

Two weeks into the 2021 season, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has yet to be challenged with finding out how to fit five of his most impactful bats into four lineup spots. That will change in the coming days.

Outfielder Austin Hays, the offensive star of spring training who suffered a right hamstring strain in the Orioles’ sweep-completing victory April 4 against the Boston Red Sox, is expected to rejoin the club sometime during this road trip, either for Sunday’s series finale against the Texas Rangers or Tuesday’s series opener in Miami, though Hyde said Saturday the latter is more likely.

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There almost assuredly is a place for him on a team that has mostly struggled offensively since that upstart weekend. The Orioles entered Friday’s opener with the Rangers having lost eight of 10 games since losing Hays, then struck for five early runs. Two were provided on a home run from DJ Stewart, who opened the season on the injured list with a hamstring strain of his own.

Given that Stewart and center fielder Cedric Mullins have been the only consistent offensive pieces for Baltimore and that fellow outfielders Anthony Santander and Ryan Mountcastle have been fixtures in the middle of the order, Hays’ return means one member of the quintet will be on the bench every night, assuming one usually serves as the designated hitter.

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“I don’t think you can have enough good players on your roster,” Hyde said. “You can always find a way to get guys in the game. Guys need days off. Guys need rest. More good players you have, the better.”

Although all five played together in Triple-A Norfolk in 2019 — Mountcastle was primarily a first baseman then — Hyde hasn’t had this challenge yet at the major league level. There was no point in 2020 in which all five were on the roster together, with Mountcastle at the alternate site when Hays went on the injured list with a broken rib and an oblique injury ending Santander’s season before Hays returned.

This year, Stewart homered in his first two spring training games before suffering a hamstring strain in the third, an injury that kept him out through the first week of the regular season. Hays joined him on the IL before he arrived.

Stewart has been a producer since. His home run off Texas right-hander Mike Foltynewicz on Friday came out of the three spot in Hyde’s lineup and helped raise his OPS to .890. He and Mullins, with on-base percentages of .417 and .458, respectively, are the only Orioles with OBPs above .320. Mullins’ hot start is even more impressive considering he abandoned switch-hitting this offseason.

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“I’ve seen this before,” Stewart said. “Obviously, everyone’s shocked with him going just the left-handed side, which is super impressive for someone who hasn’t been doing that that long to stay in there versus those lefties. But I’ve seen him locked in like this before in the minor leagues, so it doesn’t surprise me. I just hope he continues to go ‘cause when he goes, we all go.”

As left-handed hitters, those two represent some of the natural flexibility in how Hyde can build his full-strength lineups. Santander, the 2020 Most Valuable Oriole despite the premature end to his season, is a switch-hitter, and Mountcastle and Hays hit from the right side. It’s hard to see any natural platoons, however.

Even before his home run, Stewart’s career OPS was 140 points higher against right-handers, but Hays hasn’t experienced the same opposite-handed success; his career OPS against left-handers is actually 50 points lower than Stewart’s. Mountcastle entered Friday with nearly even platoon splits.

Defensively, the Orioles’ preferred alignment seems to be Hays in left, Mullins in center and Santander in right. While Stewart has been much improved in the outfield this season, Mountcastle is still adjusting to left field and has been Baltimore’s primary DH thus far. He does have the ability to spell Trey Mancini at first base, though he had yet to play that position in 2021 before starting there Saturday.

There could be more outfield talent coming, too. Rookie speedster Ryan McKenna has served as a defensive replacement for Mountcastle and Stewart late in games the Orioles were leading, and Yusniel Diaz, the Orioles’ No. 7 prospect per Baseball America, is on the taxi squad for this road trip.

But his services likely won’t be needed if Hays returns as planned. Even factoring Friday night’s victory in Texas, it’s clear the Orioles are a better team when Hays is involved. Since the start of 2020, they are 18-16 in games he has started and 13-27 otherwise.

“Austin’s a good player,” Hyde said. “He was playing really well in Boston, so we’re looking forward to getting him back here and getting him playing. He adds a lot. He adds speed, he adds outfield defense, he adds the ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark, a guy that can really get on a fastball. Just got to try to keep him healthy and he’s going to be a contributor for us.”

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