Austin Hays is not Dwight Smith Jr. or Anthony Bemboom or anyone else so easily supplanted from the Orioles’ lineup by a bright and shiny rookie who has come up to take his spot.

He is also not Chris Davis or Mark Trumbo, who played sporadically toward the end of their time with the Orioles as opportunities went to younger players.

Hays is one of the longest-tenured Orioles, an All-Star a season ago. As he struggles to regain his footing and be the contributor he was to these Orioles over the last three-plus seasons, he’ll likely prove to be one of the most meaningful test cases of Brandon Hyde’s skills in that role that the reigning AL Manager of the Year has faced to date.

I feel the same as Mike Elias, who said Saturday that he expects Hays to have a good season and help the Orioles win games in 2024. How Hyde keeps Hays involved in the context of the emergence of Colton Cowser — who above pretty much everyone else on the team deserves to play regularly — is going to be a unique challenge that could have lasting implications on this year’s club and those beyond it.

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The top-line descriptor of Hays’ career, ever since he shot to the majors in his first full professional season in 2017, has basically been that, when he’s healthy, he’s a productive player. He’s proven that in the beginning of the last two seasons, especially. Hays was batting .278 with an .828 OPS in 2022 when he injured his wrist. He had a .623 OPS from that point on.

Baltimore Orioles left fielder Austin Hays (21) throws the ball to the infield during a game against the Los Angeles Angels on Opening Day at Camden Yards on Thursday, March 28, 2024. The Baltimore Orioles won their first game of the season, 11-3, against the Angels. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Hays found out he was an All-Star on July 3 last year — one day after he left the team’s game against Minnesota with a hip injury after an on-field collision. Hays had an .843 OPS when he left that game, came back in time for the All-Star Game, and had a .684 OPS the rest of the season.

There’s been no such strong start this year. Hays is 3-for-35 — all singles — with 10 strikeouts. He missed time in spring training after being hit with a pitch in the shoulder, and he has missed time in both spring and the regular season due to illness. There’s a risk, given the trajectory of his past seasons, that Hays doesn’t get back on track.

All the while, Cowser is off to an eye-popping start, with his fourth home run Sunday bringing his OPS to 1.445. It’s the kind of hot streak that, for a former first-round pick or not, is going to warrant a player a regular spot in the lineup. That it has come at Hays’ expense, given Anthony Santander is an everyday player as a switch hitter and Cedric Mullins has center field locked down, complicates things for the Orioles.

There’s nothing wrong with having Hays be the small half of an outfield platoon, spelling Cowser or Mullins against lefties and impacting the games he doesn’t start off the bench. There aren’t a lot of teams who can use someone as overqualified as Hays for that role, and the Orioles will be fortunate they can, provided he starts hitting.

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It should be noted, though, that after Hays had an .897 OPS against lefties in 2021, it’s been .725 — a shade above league average — since the start of the 2022 season. Also, that role basically describes what the Orioles had in mind for Jorge Mateo this year, now that the infield spots are all spoken for, and Mateo is filling his assigned role reasonably well.

Baltimore Orioles left fielder Austin Hays (21) makes a play in the outfield in a game against the Los Angeles Angels at Camden Yards on March 30, 2024. The Baltimore Orioles beat the Angels, 13-4, to clinch a series win. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

That’s what makes it complicated. Hyde has been rightfully lauded since the moment he was hired for the culture he’s set, the way he’s handled his players individually and as a group, and for how consistent he’s been throughout.

This is a particularly unusual circumstance, at least for his time here. The early rebuilding days basically featured cast-offs and second-chancers who were glad for an opportunity to play in the big leagues again but, almost to a man, proved fungible. When a young player was deemed ready to take their spot, he did, and in many cases the loss of a regular lineup spot was soon followed by the player being removed from the roster.

Hays was one of the players who solidified himself as a major leaguer in those early years, reinforcing the club’s floor as high-ceiling prospect after high-ceiling prospect joined the lineup around them. Now that many of those players who were once deemed the future are part of the team’s present, and they’re defending a division title, there’s an urgency to win every night.

That makes the well of patience a bit less full in circumstances like these, especially when there’s a hot-hitting alternative. But how Hyde handles Hays will be a fascinating case study for his peer group, the inherited players from the previous front office who developed into high-caliber major leaguers in this new era of Orioles baseball but may not be part of the long-term future.

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Baltimore Orioles outfielders Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander speak during a pitching change in a game against the Kansas City Royals at Camden Yards on April 1, 2024. The Orioles beat the Royals, 6-4, on Monday night. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Hays’ outfield mates, Mullins and Santander, will probably watch how this plays out closely. Same for Ryan Mountcastle, and even John Means, who will soon be back in the rotation.

The Orioles have traded enough established players over the years that everyone is pretty calloused to it. The way things ended with Trumbo and Davis felt cordial but, at the end of their careers, there probably wasn’t a lot either side could have done about how those went.

Hays is a different case. And if he’s going to prove Elias — to say nothing of longtime Hays believers like myself — correct and contribute in a meaningful way to the 2024 Orioles, it will be another occasion when Hyde pulls the right strings and gets the most out of his roster. There’s just really no blueprint for this one.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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