A rule change in the Arizona Fall League gave the Orioles the opportunity to get the best of both worlds with outfielder Austin Hays, who the club promoted Saturday after initially deciding he would not get a September call-up.
Hays, the Orioles’ No. 6 prospect per Baseball America, was initially going to join the AFL later this month as one of seven Baltimore representatives on the Surprise Saguaros. The league has historically started play in October, but this year’s season starts earlier and overlaps with the major league schedule. As a result, the Orioles determined the best course of action for Hays was to send him to the AFL to make up for at-bats lost this season to thumb and hamstring injuries, rather than have him receive sporadic at-bats in the majors.
But on Thursday, the Orioles and other teams received a memo from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association announcing the AFL adjusted its rules to allow players on team’s 40-man rosters to join their AFL teams midseason, letting them spend September in the majors if their respective organizations wanted.
The Orioles made that choice with Hays, who is back in the majors for the first time since he received a September call-up in 2017 and will report to the AFL at season’s end.
“I’m glad they made the decision because ideally we just wanted him to get at-bats, and in the fall league, with it being an either/or choice at the time between the fall league and the September call-ups, it was two months of at-bats versus one month,” Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said. “Probably with not 100% playing time here in September. Now the fact that we’re able to do both, it’s kind of the best of both worlds.
“I do think that it will be nice for him to spend some time with the major league club, but the main thing is he still needs seasoning, he still needs the at-bats, and that fall league stuff will be important for him.”
Hays, 24, became the first 2016 draftee from any team to reach the majors after he hit .329/.365/.593 with 32 home runs between High-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie in 2017. But with the Orioles, he struggled, managing a .217/.238/.317 batting line with 16 strikeouts in 60 at-bats.
He’s spent most of the past two seasons dealing with injuries, with an ankle problem that eventually required surgery costing him time in 2018. But Hays, who hit .261/.312/.473 in 49 games with Triple-A Norfolk after returning from the hamstring injury, found himself back at Camden Yards on Saturday.
“I’ve grown a lot,” Hays said. “I hadn’t failed at all the last time I came up here. Everything went as well as something can possibly go the start of your career, and since then, it has gone just about as bad, dealing with injuries and failures. Half my games have been rehab games playing at levels that I thought I was done with.
“It definitely is nice that they're willing to give me the opportunity to come up and compete with these guys seeing that I haven't played about half the games the last two years.”
Hays will be a regular part of the Orioles’ outfield rotation the final three weeks of the season, likely getting time at all three outfield spots. With several other outfielders on the Orioles’ expanded September roster, it’s unlikely he plays every day, Elias and manager Brandon Hyde said, but there’s plenty of optimism about the days he does.
“For me, it’s exciting to bring up young players that have tools, and you can kind of get a glimpse of what it’s going to look like a few years from now, a couple years from now,” Hyde said. “So, when we bring up the Austin Hayses, the Hunter Harveys, [Anthony] Santander earlier in the year, that’s exciting for me because I love seeing big league tools out there. They’ll take their lumps and they’ll have tough moments, but also, you can see what things could possibly look like going forward.”
Mountcastle, Akin, Mullins not getting promoted
Hays is likely the Orioles’ last promotion of significance, with Elias confirming that neither first baseman/outfielder Ryan Mountcastle nor left-hander Keegan Akin will be called up. He also said it was unlikely Cedric Mullins, the Orioles’ Opening Day center fielder, would be promoted once Bowie’s playoff run ends. The Baysox advanced to the Eastern League Championship Series with a 12-5 win over Harrisburg on Saturday.
Mountcastle, Baltimore’s No. 5 prospect, earned International League MVP honors by hitting .312/.344/.527 with 25 home runs for the Tides. But the 22-year-old struck out 130 times while drawing only 24 walks.
He also remains an unfinished product defensively, primarily playing first base and left field for Norfolk after exclusively playing playing third base for Bowie in 2018. Although Elias said the Orioles are pleased with his improvement, especially in left field despite having minimal outfield experience, it’s possible Mountcastle begins 2020 back at Triple-A.
“We still think he is developing,” Elias said. “We’re thrilled with the season he had offensively. If there’s something to nitpick there, it’s his plate discipline, and he knows that. He’s not a big walker, and he’s still striking out a little bit. But that’s not to put a damper on what he’s done at age 22 in Triple-A. He’s also still doing some work on his defense.
“Long story short, I think he’s going to spend some more time in the minor leagues as a result of those two things.”
Akin, 24, spent the full season with Norfolk, posting a 4.73 ERA. In 112 1/3 innings, the Orioles’ No. 11 prospect struck out 131, the most in the IL, but also issued 61 walks.
“These guys, they’re big prospects. If need be, could they come to the big leagues? Yeah,” Elias said. “They’re not fully finished with their development really for the same reasons, and it’s walk rate in a lot of cases.
“[Akin] will be in a very strong position to compete for a rotation spot [next] year, and I fully expect him to be in the major leagues with us next year.”
Mullins, 24, seemed poised to be the Orioles’ center fielder of the future before opening the season 6-for-64 and getting demoted to Norfolk, where he then hit .205 to get sent down again. He’s performed better for Bowie and has played a key role in their pursuit of an Eastern League title.
“I don’t think we’re going to be calling Cedric up,” Elias said. “I talked to him the other night in Bowie. It’s been a lost season for him in a lot of ways, and the fact that he has ended up back in Bowie is not something I ever would’ve dreamt or would’ve wanted to see, and I don’t think he did, either.
"We do think that he might benefit from making some mechanical changes and some very focused mechanical work. He’s got a real good approach. He’s got a lot of ability. He’s still really young and he’s still a heck of a center fielder, so we’re going to put together a program for him in the offseason to work on his swing.”
Orioles 2017 first-round pick DL Hall, Baltimore’s top pitching prospect, seemed to en route to another second-half surge when a lat strain prematurely ended his season. Elias said the injury came too late in the season for him to rejoin Frederick before the minor league season finished.
“I don’t think we’re going to have him pitch competitively this offseason, but he’ll have a normal program in terms of throwing,” Elias said. “Fingers crossed, he’s going to come to spring training 100%.”
Hall, like Hays, Mountcastle and Akin, is a holdover from the previous front office regime. That group, and others, combined with the players Elias added in his first draft as Orioles GM to make up the eighth-best farm system in baseball. Three Orioles minor league affiliates made the playoffs in the first year of the organization’s first year of its rebuild.
“The talent that is in this organization and has been in this organization prior to our group getting here, I think it was kind of given a short shrift publicly,” Elias said. “You’ve seen what the minor leagues have done this year, what the pitchers have done in the minor leagues. They’ve responded well to the program we’ve put in place, but these are also really good draft picks, and these were guys that the organization took with high picks, and they’re doing well.
“So I feel good about the strides that we’ve made in our farm system, but I also feel good about the talent that we have here, and by no means are we starting from scratch. I do feel like we have an above-average farm system at this point, so that’s nice.”