As an organization with the top-ranked farm system in baseball (per MLB Pipeline), the Orioles have a number of talented prospects to be excited about. Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall, Kyle Bradish, Kyle Stowers and more are on the cusp of making their major-league debuts in 2022. The last few years have been difficult enough for fans to stomach, but things could start getting fun real soon.

But even if the O’s accomplish their goal of building a deep farm system, they can’t rely on prospects alone to turn around their lack of success. A significant free-agent signing or two would be welcomed. However, that seems improbable and perhaps more likely next offseason (or beyond) as the O’s wait for said interesting prospects to debut and for the proverbial stars to align for a potential playoff push (or, as Mike Elias has called it, “maximizing playoff odds”).

If a major free agent isn’t in the cards yet, settling for internal improvement by those already on the roster will have to suffice. The O’s current roster lacks the talent of nearly every other major-league team, but it’s not without things to like. Cedric Mullins’ rejuvenation has him looking like a legitimate player to build around or an intriguing trade chip, depending on who you ask. The same goes for John Means, who isn’t an ace but is a solid starting pitcher on a team in which that’s a novelty. You can keep going, with positive attributes for Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini, Ramón Urías, Anthony Santander, Cole Sulser, Tyler Wells and others.

It’s all a work in progress, of course, but the transformation of Mullins and Means from afterthoughts to All-Stars is the most interesting aspect of the names listed above. None of what they’ve done was anticipated, but it’s what can happen when ambition and a willingness to change meet quality player development.

Meanwhile, there’s one name that isn’t mentioned above: Austin Hays. Could he be the next mid-20s O’s player to make a leap?

In 2019, the relatively unknown Means decided not to quit baseball, forced his way into the O’s rotation and earned an All-Star nod in his age-26 season. Last year, Mullins, also in his age-26 season, re-emerged after a disastrous 2019 and ditched switch-hitting en route to earning a starting spot on the All-Star team and completing the first 30-30 season in O’s history.

As you may have guessed, Hays will be entering his age-26 season in 2022. He’s a former top-100 prospect (in the top 25 on some lists) and made his major-league debut all the way back in 2017. He’s looked promising at times, but his main issue has been his health. He’s battled an assortment of injuries in his young career, and every time it seems like he’s about to round the corner and become a lineup mainstay, another ailment pops up.

Most recently, Hays was forced to the injured list twice in the first half of the 2021 season with strained hamstrings. The second injury ended up being related to a core issue that was repaired with surgery after the season.

Hays finished as one of the most productive O’s regulars in what amounted to his first full season (even in the shortened 2020 season, an errant pitch fractured his rib). In 131 games and 529 plate appearances, Hays batted .256/.308/.461 (106 wRC+) and posted a 2.4 fWAR — second among O’s position players behind Mullins (5.3).

What was most impressive about Hays, other than his ability to produce while he wasn’t fully healthy (he estimated he could run “85-90 percent with no pain”), was how he ended the season. After putting up a 98 wRC+ in the first half, he posted a 113 wRC+ in the second half, including a 147 wRC+ in September/October. He also mashed eight of his 22 home runs in the season’s final frame.

In fact, it’s pretty common for Hays to thrive when a season is about to end:

Sept./Oct. 2019: 146 wRC+ (75 PA)
Sept./Oct. 2020: 166 wRC+ (57 PA)
Sept./Oct. 2021: 147 wRC+ (128 PA)

It hasn’t led to sustained success yet. But in the season before Mullins took off, albeit in the truncated 2020 campaign, his overall numbers weren’t that different from what Hays did in 2021:

Mullins: 95 wRC+, .313 wOBA, .251 xwOBA, 88.6 EV, 110.2 Max EV, 2.8 Barrel % (153 PA)
Hays: 106 wRC+, .328 wOBA, .316 xwOBA, 88.8 EV, 110.3 Max EV, 9.1 Barrel % (529 PA)

Hays’ numbers are better, but in particular, the similarity in exit velocity is interesting. Obviously Mullins took things to a different level in 2021 by barreling the ball more often, walking more and cutting down on his strikeouts. But could Hays make similar gains by recognizing pitches earlier and making better swing decisions? Those two topics are at the center of what new co-hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte aim to improve in their collaboration.

Unfortunately for Hays, there’s a new wrinkle that could make things more difficult when he steps to the plate during home games. The Orioles are in the process of pushing back the left field fence at Camden Yards. Some spots between the left field foul pole and bullpen area will be moved back 30 feet, and the fence will be raised to about 12 feet. Depending on the final dimensions, these changes could have cost Hays a few homers last season. That’s not ideal for a player who’s trying to break out.

As long as he’s healthy, though, Hays has other skills to contribute. He’s fast, is an above-average outfielder who can fill in for Mullins in center field and has a cannon for an arm. Having more room to cover in left field makes it even more important for the O’s to have a competent defender in left, like Hays or Ryan McKenna. At worst, Hays is a useful reserve outfielder who performs better against left-handed pitching.

The lack of a shorter porch won’t help Hays at the plate. But even if it still existed, he needed to make gains in on-base percentage and plate discipline to get to that next level. That means chasing less and not missing pitches in his zone that he can hit hard in the air. He’s not alone in that regard, as Mountcastle and Santander also have room to improve.

By all accounts, Hays is putting in the work this offseason. He’s rehabbing from his injury and should be 100 percent heading into the season. He even built a batting cage at his home in Florida. He doesn’t have switch-hitting to abandon or a swing that needs to be rebuilt, but there is a path for him to realize his top prospect potential. We’ll see if he can join the ranks of Mullins and Means soon.

Photo Credit: Colin Murphy/PressBox

Matt Kremnitzer

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