As the wintering offseason continues to move like an Arctic glacier, the Orioles remain nothing more than a sheet of ice adrift in a barren freeze.
Welington Castillo, who remains the most notable acquisition thus far, does solidify one of the positions the Orioles set out to stronghold. Along with Castillo, trading for Logan Verrett, claiming Adam Walker, re-signing Logan Ondrusek, agreeing with a few minor league free agents and adding a pair of Rule 5 draftees, the Orioles have invested not in the weak free-agent pool, but in the cornerstone of organizational depth.
If Oriole fans believed Dan Duquette was to bring summer to the tundra with a payroll already reaching its cap, this current reality will have surely changed your mind.
With only a select few changes to be made, the Orioles, already working the under the constraints of an unprecedentedly ballooning budget, were never going to make major moves. If there was ever a winter for Duquette to make friends in low places, it was to be an offseason in which the Orioles had to be crafty. And as much as Duquette takes rightful flack for his misses, he’s been known to hit on a few of these stealthy moves as well.
One of the our new friends happens to be Aneury Tavarez, one of the Orioles two Rule-5 picks earlier this month. Tavarez, only 24 years old, actually has a realistic chance of making and remaining with the Orioles 2017 roster.
Slashing .335/.379/.506 in 106 games at Double-A Portland, Tavarez brings a slap bat with solid speed, the kind of attributes the Orioles were hoping to acquire at some point before the start of the new season. As a corner outfielder, with only Adam Jones, Hyun Soo Kim and Joey Rickard as current competition, Tavarez may end up playing a noticeable role as a rookie.
Tavarez is prepped to be the more visual of the two Rule 5 selections, but Anthony Santander, the Orioles second Rule-5 pick earlier this month, may be the more exciting prospect.
Santander, who just turned 22 years old, played strictly at High-A Lynchburg in the Cleveland Indians organization in 2016. Impressively, Santander slashed .290/.368/.494 in 128 games a season ago, all of which accumulated to a 137 wRC+. He saw his walk numbers rise, as well as his power numbers in what turned out to be his first major taste of professional baseball.
His hitting numbers should come to no surprise to most, given Santander has built up a reputation as natural. In 2015, his former manager Travis Fryman said of Santander, “If he's healthy, he's an awfully impressive hitter.”
Indians director of player development Carter Hawkins mentioned Santander when saying, “When you talk to our coaches, they talk about how Anthony just looks ‘hitterish’. It’s kind of one of those ‘you know it when you see it’ things, but watching Santa hit is as good a definition as any.”
And as Fryman said, staying healthy has been an issue for Santander. From 2013 to 2014, he suffered through separate bouts of a strained right elbow, and as we speak of Santander, he’s currently recovering from offseason shoulder surgery in the same arm.
Duquette obviously felt unconcerned taking Santander despite not having “all of the medicals on him,” but said “we’re comfortable in that we think he’s worth shot, based on his talent as a hitter, to add him to our roster.”
When he’s healthy, you see a hitter, as farfetched it may sound, that actually does look like Victor Martinez from the left-handed side.
Duquette also commented on Santander, where he was quoted as saying, “If you see him play, he has a lot of [Victor] Martinez’s mannerisms. He has a similar stance. Excellent young hitter. He was the best young player in the Carolina League.”
And he really does. Santander has developed a leg kick in which he uses in sync with his load. He has a very loose swing and for a 22 year old, it’s difficult to find a flaw in his approach at the plate. Much like Martinez, you see a guy whose bat-to-ball skills have aided his reputation. Comparing Santander to one of baseball’s most consistent bats over the last decade should sound like rubbish, but the tools speak too loudly too ignore.
For the Orioles, Santander’s injury predicament will come as an immediate blessing. Santander, guaranteed position on the 25-man roster, will likely open 2017 on the 60-day disabled list, buying the Orioles time to use his vacated spot at the team’s choosing. When Santander comes back however, the situation becomes much more unpleasant.
As gifted a hitter as Santander is, he’s projected to make the leap from High-A to the big leagues, a substantial jump for any player no matter the talent. Santander is also a corner outfielder whose defense has never projected or performed particularly well, given his bulk and lack of range.
One would hope the Orioles are aiming to rebuild what was once a proud defensive outfit, and Santander’s current status as an average defender at best isn’t so reassuring.
As a Rule 5 pick, Santander is subjected to stay on the Orioles active roster for 90 days, or else his Rule 5 status carries into 2018. The O’s managed to pull off quite a feat in their handling of former Rule 5 selection Jason Garcia in 2015, limiting him to 29.1 innings. Garcia missed time at the beginning of the season with a hamstring strain, and was actually later sent to the disabled list with shoulder tendinitis.
When he did appear in actual games, Garcia was nothing more than a garbage-time reliever who was used as a band-aid when the Orioles were already processing the effects of rigor mortis. For Santander and an Orioles lineup that is likely again facing a lack of versatility, such a marriage is hard to justify.
Sending Santander back to the Indians may end up being his finish line with the Orioles. It would make every sense with Tavarez already in tow, and with the Orioles clinging to whatever contending window is left, every roster spot is of the utmost importance.
Even so, Santander looks like the kind of budding bat that the Orioles would be wise to see in its full bloom. Switch-hitting bats with natural contact skills and forming power aren’t so easily acquired. Handing a roster spot to a promising bat expected to struggle would be a tough course to take, but with a clouded future, Santander has the kind of inherent tools to make the looming decision that much more frustrating.