Several important questions surround Baltimore Orioles outfielder Austin Hays as he enters his fourth full season with the club in 2023:
1. Is the 2022, solid-but-inconsistent version of Hays what can be expected in 2023, or is there another gear?
2. Will he be a full-time starter in 2023?
3. Is he a part of the long-term plan for the Baltimore Orioles' outfield?
The Orioles selected Hays, now 27 years old, with the 91st pick in the 2016 MLB first-player draft out of Jacksonville University. Hays immediately impacted the Orioles' system, crushing opposing pitching to the tune of a .958 OPS between Single-A Frederick and Double-A Bowie during his first professional season in 2017. The Orioles, in fact, called Hays up in September 2017, where he played in 20 games and hit one home run.
After an injury-plagued, lost 2018, Hays made his way back to the Orioles in 2019, posting a terrific .947 OPS in an albeit small sample size of 75 plate appearances. He also made one of the greatest catches in center field in recent memory, robbing Toronto's Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of a home run.
Orioles OF Austin Hays: What's his Baltimore future?
Hays entered the COVID-shortened 2020 season as the Orioles' starting centerfielder. However, the emergence of Hays' good friend, Cedric Mullins, ultimately pushed Hays to a corner outfield spot, where he has been since 2021. The right-handed hitting outfielder was solid but unspectacular in 2021 and 2022, posting OPS marks of .769 and .719, respectively.
Hays' 2022 was noteworthy due to his hot start and mediocre finish. Hays seemingly picked up where he left off in September 2021, where he posted a stout .933 OPS, starting April 2022 off with an .843 OPS. Hays stayed hot through May and June, posting a .798 and .794 OPS, respectively. Hays also hit 11 of his 16 home runs in 2022 before the calendar turned to July and, most notably, hit for the cycle in a rain-shortened game (!) against the Nationals in June.
The "dog days of summer" hit Hays hard, as what appeared to be an All-Star season turned south. Posting OPS marks of .566, .638, and .688 in July, August, and September, respectively, Hays' once-promising season stumbled to the finish line.
So what happened, and what should be made of this? Is Hays merely a platoon player? Not really; the platoon splits are not so dramatic that the right-handed Hays should be limited to only facing lefties. Hays' career OPS against left-handers is a solid .777, while his career OPS against righties is a slightly less solid (but still passable) .727.
The Orioles' farm system is loaded at most positions, and outfield is no exception. Colton Cowser, whom the Orioles selected with the fifth pick in the 2021 first-year-player draft, is ranked 40th in MLBPipeline's Top 100 list, and checks in at fifth on the Orioles talent-filled list of prospects. Cowser is expected to begin the season in Triple-A, and could be an injury or a hot streak away from joining the Orioles some time this summer.
Heston Kjerstad, whom the Orioles selected second overall in the 2020 MLB draft, has dealt with his share of obstacles but finally appears to be healthy and prepared to contribute to the Orioles. While perhaps not as close to the majors as Cowser, the 24-year-old put up a 1.007 OPS en route to MVP in the Arizona Fall League and an .851 OPS between Low and High-A in 2022. Currently MLBPipeline's 60th-ranked prospect, Kjerstad is off to a nice start this spring and, while he will not break camp with the Orioles, could be an option later in the season as a corner outfielder. While Hays is under team control for three more seasons, both Coswer and Kjerstad represent legitimate threats to Hays' ability to remain a starting outfielder with the Orioles for years to come.
As of today, Austin Hays enters 2023 as the Orioles' starting left fielder, joined by Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander in - compared to the infield - a relatively veteran group. As stated above, questions linger: which version of the Hays will the Orioles see in 2023? The potential-All-Star version, or the Austin Hays who greatly struggled in the second half?
To be honest, Hays is 27, and at this point, this just might be who Austin Hays is: a streaky player who can carry a team on his back, but is subject to ice-cold steaks as well. Even if that is what Hays is, he provides value. He is a good defender, and unlike offense, defense usually does not have slumps. Hays already has two home runs in 11 spring training at bats, signaling, perhaps, that he will start 2023 on one of his patented hot streaks. Overall, Hays is a solid player, and fans in 2023 need to hope for less of the cold spells, and more of the Austin Hays who was in the running for an All-Star nod in 2022. But, with youngsters Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser just a phone call away, one too many cold spells could be the beginning of the end of Hays' tenure in Baltimore.