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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The Orioles will enter next season without true intentions of competing for an American League East title. Baltimore, fully immersed in a rebuild, has its eyes set on the long-term future.

Because of this, the Orioles will not break the bank this offseason. There’s no point. Instead, the club will provide its young players an opportunity to succeed. Baltimore may be hard pressed to find free agent pitching for the right price, and it’s not clear who will handle middle-infield duties for the Birds. Still, one thing appears to be certain. The Orioles will bank on a young outfield prospect to handle center field next season.

The current depth chart on the Orioles official website lists Austin Hays as the club’s starting center fielder. Hays, the Orioles third-round pick in 2016, appeared in 21 games for Baltimore last season. Hays slashed .309/.373/.574 during his brief stint with the big club.

The Orioles did not immediately promote Hays once rosters expanded on September 1, and the Daytona Beach, Florida, native nearly missed out on his cup of coffee last season. Baltimore fully intended to send Hays to the Arizona Fall League so he could receive regular at bats. A conveniently timed rule change in the Arizona Fall League allowed players on a team’s 40-man roster to play with the MLB team during September and join the AFL team mid-season. Hays qualified, and Baltimore came calling.

You all know the story from there. Hays seized the opportunity and cut out a role for himself last September. Those regular at bats he needed to develop? He earned those at the Major League level. And he made the most of them too.

Hays started 15 games for the Orioles and played center field in all of them. He ripped four homers, drove in 13 runs and swiped a couple of bags too. He robbed home runs, he made diving catches, and best of all, he resembled an actual center fielder in Camden Yards.

Hays stepped up and filled a role the Orioles lacked all season. His play eliminated the need for a trip to Arizona, and instead provided Hays an inside track for a starting job in 2020.

Of course, the Orioles did not anticipate such a glaring hole up the middle last season. They began 2019 with high hopes for another young prospect. Cedric Mullins started in center on Opening Day and played 22 games for Baltimore before it became clear things weren’t working out.

Mullins, who burst onto the scene in 2018 after a very successful minor league campaign, had provided the Orioles reason to be optimistic. After a promotion on August 10, Mullins hit .317/.386/.556 during his first month at the Big League level. His numbers leveled off in September, but a combination of fatigue and adjustments pardoned the drop off. The Greensboro, North Carolina, native would have a full offseason and another spring training to get back to his peak performance.

He never did.

Instead, Mullins started 2019 with an atrocious 6 hits in 64 at bats. That’s an .094 batting average and good for a -0.7 WAR in only 22 games. Eventually, the Orioles had seen enough. Mullins was optioned to Triple-A, but his hitting woes continued at Norfolk. With a blink of an eye, Mullins had fallen from starting on Opening Day in the MLB, to back to the Double-A Bowie Baysox.

While Mullins’ shortcomings were unfortunate, they also served as a cautionary tale. Can the Orioles bank on Hays to start in center field next season, or could he be the next Mullins? In the case of Hays, there’s reason to be optimistic.

Hays, a third round pick, has always had a higher ceiling than the 13th-round pick Mullins. Hays also has two cups of coffee in his system after playing 20 games for the Birds back in 2017. Hays has a longer track record of success in the minors, and could have been a mainstay in Baltimore earlier if it were not for injuries.

Of course, Hays’ medical record is also a cause for concern. It doesn’t really matter if Hays can hit if he can’t stay healthy. But a few injuries do not completely rule out a full season at the Major League level. Just ask the kid with the funky hair down in the O’s bullpen.

Still, the Birds could probably use a contingency plan for center. Anthony Santander can play the spot in a pinch, but he’s better suited for the corners. The Orioles shouldn’t count on Stevie Wilkerson up the middle unless he’s standing on the rubber, and DJ Stewart’s injury took a hit on the organization’s outfield depth. Don’t be surprised if the Orioles bring in a cheap veteran to compete during spring training, but signs still point to Hays in center.

What about Mullins? He certainly does not appear to be an Opening-Day candidate after a rocky 2019. But have we seen the last of him in Baltimore? Not necessarily. Mullins is only 25-years-old, and his potential hasn’t completely vanished.

It was never fair that Mullins represented the first stage of the Orioles rebuild. And with the benefit of hindsight, Mullins leading the team out of the dugout during his debut looks more and more like just another classy move by Adam Jones instead of a true passing of the torch.

Mullins might hit during spring training, and if he plays well, there’s no reason why he cannot climb his way back to Baltimore. There’s sure to be opportunities next season, but Mullins will need to earn it.

Brandon Hyde and Mike Elias have yet to declare Hays the center fielder of the future, and there’s really no reason to right now. They want the kid, now 24 years old, to show up hungry and motivated next spring. Still, one look at this roster shows that the spot is his to lose.

Let’s hope he wins it, and does not let go.

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