In the immortal words of Gary Thorne, “MERCY!”
That’s all we’re asking for as the knife of the 2017 season slowly releases from out of our backs. Just end it. Take us to October.
The Orioles are 7-18 this month, with a run differential of -64. September marks the fourth losing month of the six available months, and just over the last seven games, the O’s have been outscored 24-46. There hasn’t been a lot of good to indulge in since September presented itself, but watching the young guys get regular reps has made meaningless Orioles baseball a bit more significant.
As he did before joining the Orioles, Austin Hays has continued to pepper hits throughout the outfield, including an impressive home run to right-center field at Yankee Stadium. Chance Sisco’s reputation as a plus-bat has followed him to the Orioles, where his quick trigger and simple swing has been eye-opening in his small sample.
Then there’s Anthony Santander, whose bandwagon is looking for reservations.
Yeah, Santander is still mostly an unknown, given he’s only 22 and is credited with just 1,554 minor league plate appearances over six seasons. His Rule-5 status forced the Orioles to place him on the active roster in August, a year removed from what could be truly called his first full season as a professional. His 137 wRC+ at High-A Lynchburg was the result of a .290/.368/.494 slash with 20 home runs, as he was also in the top five of all three triple crown categories in the Carolina League a season ago.
The Orioles saw enough to take him with their second pick in last winter’s Rule-5 draft, and his bat is why the club opted against a slightly more polished product in fellow outfielder Aneury Tavarez, the O’s other Rule-5er this past offseason.
For a 22-year-old playing above High-A for the first time this year, Santander has held his own at the big league level. In his first 24 plate appearances with the Orioles, Santander has managed a .292/.292/.417 slash with three doubles, including a three-hit night on Wednesday.
In that game, all of Santander’s offensive tools were on display.
This is 98 MPH up and in relatively inside to Santander in an 0-1 count, and he mashes this baseball 101 MPH over Andrew McCutchen’s head into the right-center gap. It’s not that he gets this baseball too far up or down the barrel. No, he squares this pitch up without question.
And in that snapshot, you see a hitter balanced in his base, his head and eyes scoped to the baseball, and on a pitch coming at Santander that hard, he manages to keep his elbows soft and adapt his hands to the pitch. A more natural left-handed hitter, Santander gets out in front of 98 MPH that’s practically at the letters.
This swing on this pitch glimpses into a young hitter with terrific hand-eye coordination, and shows Santander can maneuver hidden crevices in the strike zone.
Speaking of adjusting, in Santander’s second hit of the night, we saw evidence he can modify his approach on the fly.
Chad Kuhl only threw nine changeups on Wednesday night, or 11 percent of his offerings, which is around the typical usage for Kuhl who’s primarily a fastball-slider pitcher. Santander had seen a changeup the pitch before, swinging and missing to put him in an 0-2 hole, but he hangs back oh so slightly and lines a single into right field.
While not as boasting as hitting a 98 MPH fastball up, for a young hitter to have to get horizontal to reach what wasn’t a terrible changeup on the outer-half of the plate is a good sign nonetheless. Like his hands, he keeps his weight back, which allows him to cover the entirety of the plate with two strikes. Not bad, eh?
In the 9th inning with the Orioles down two runs and the ever-intimidating Felipe Rivero hucking no less than 99 MPH from the left-handed side, Santander was faced with yet another solid roadblock. Paralyzed by a first pitch 102.6 MPH fastball on the outer black for a strike, the promising Venezuelan swung and missed over an equally impressive 93 MPH changeup at the bottom of the zone for strike two. Even so, Rivero made a mistake, and Santander made him pay.
It’s amazing to watch how quickly Santander has to configure his toe-tap with his load, because 101.5 MPH doesn’t discriminate. He is literally starting to swing as he strides to home plate, and it doesn’t even matter, because he strokes a shot into the right-center gap for another double. It’s one thing to hit velocity, but it’s another to have the perfect approach to a fastball down and away, in the batter’s box Santander didn’t fully commit to until he signed with Indians. It tells me hitting, to him, is a natural function.
Santander is still a little stiff in his swing and I would hope he loosens up a bit, leading to more home runs. Regardless, this is a project the Orioles were smart to mortgage.
I wouldn’t be shocked to see Santander spend a chunk of time at Bowie, or even Norfolk after he eclipses his mandatory 90-days on the active roster. The dude needs the reps, but again, he’ll be 23 entering the 2018 season without the any pressure to play at the big league level with Adam Jones, Trey Mancini, and Austin Hays pretty much penciled into the opening day lineup next spring.
While Santander may not have the highest of ceilings, these coveted tools indicate a player with a relatively raised floor. The Orioles are going to look a lot different before we know it, and depth is going to be sought.
If depth is all he becomes, he’ll still be embraced. But my gut tells me he’s something more, and I so desperately hope I’m right.