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Anthony Santander emerged from the pack as one of the best Orioles stories this year

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On top of doing some delightful international diplomacy, Santander hit 20 homers for the Orioles in 2019.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

When the Orioles reported to spring training about eight months ago, there were probably at least three and maybe as many as five young outfielders who you were more excited to see in action than Anthony Santander. The 24-year-old switch-hitter had not done much to distinguish himself since Dan Duquette grabbed him in the Rule 5 draft for the 2017 season.

Now that the season is over, Santander is going to be much higher on all of our lists headed into the 2020 season. He has gone from a player who might only be included on a list of potential contributors to the future for the sake of thoroughness to a player who’s got a starting job next year locked down. Hitting 20 home runs and the same number of doubles in 93 games will do that.

Someone who completely blanked the 2019 Orioles from their awareness as the season was happening, who is only now looking in on their statistics, might find the excitement about Santander to be puzzling. Though he did hit those 20 home runs, he ended his season with a .261/.297/.476 batting line. That’s exciting power, but a player with a sub-.300 on-base percentage is not usually worth getting too worked up about.

The full season’s split does not, Orioles fans must hope, tell the whole tale. After all, Santander collected a 12-game hitting streak with its last game on September 7, at which point he was batting .288/.323/.518. He’d struck out in 19.5% of plate appearances and walked 5.2% of the time, amounts that are respectable, if not wonderful.

However, from that point, Santander went on a Davisian five-game hitless streak, and he closed out his season with an 0-13 over the final two games he played in. Reportedly, Santander was battling undisclosed nagging injuries throughout September. My strident belief that the poor performance and injuries are connected, and that he will not deal with that again, ultimately has the same predictive value as the braying of a barnyard animal.

It’s a testament to Santander’s ability that he was able to get to that point at all. In the 46 games he was perfunctorily inserted into the MLB lineup while the former GM, Duquette, waited for the Rule 5 status to wear off across 2017 and 2018, he posted just a .565 OPS, and even after being dropped down to the minors and competition that might have been more appropriate for him, he wasn’t setting the world on fire.

Santander had at least one believer headed into spring training, though. There was an early MASN broadcast where Brian Roberts said he thought Santander was headed for a big breakout. In the 18 games where Santander played this spring, he lived up to that belief, with 11 hits in 33 at-bats, eight of which went for extra bases.

According to Baseball Reference, this was against competition that was, on average, below Double-A level. That’s not unusual for guys whose spring training action is chiefly before the MLB players on other teams start getting more and more of the playing time, which is why Mike Elias wasn’t making any roster decisions in his outfield based on who had a good spring.

In Santander’s 48 games for Triple-A Norfolk this season, even with the MLB juiced balls being down there, he batted .259/.311/.415. Similar to Austin Hays, who I looked at a week ago, this was not a “Call me up right now!” statement made by those numbers on their own. It was good enough for the Orioles to give Santander a big league call-up for the remainder of the season starting on June 7, and once he got there, he made the most of the chance.

Even with the swoon in the last three weeks of the season, Santander has proven enough that only an awful 2020 spring training that suggests he’s lost everything he gained this season could dislodge him from one of the starting outfield spots next year. If the presence of Chris Davis ultimately forces Trey Mancini into right field again - a phrase I wish I could stop having to type - that should leave left field for Santander.

For Baseball Reference, this was a 1.3 WAR season for Santander. That’s not bad for 93 games. Fangraphs was a bit harsher, giving him only 0.7 WAR. They seem to have punished him more for his lack of range in center field, an experiment that we can hope does not go any farther beyond the 156 innings he played there when the team was desperate this season. Statcast data showed that he lagged behind average on reaction time and burst speed as a fielder.

No survey of Santander’s 2019 season is complete without mentioning the day that he became a legend in the eyes of thousands of visiting Scouts from the United Kingdom. The fact that something so spontaneous and wonderful as that whole experience can happen even to a rookie outfielder on an Orioles team that was headed for 108 losses is something that still amazes me. I think that a lot of MLB players who’ve been around a lot longer than Santander have never had a day anything like that.

Reality is not always so kind as to propel the player who was at the center of a feel-good story to prominence, or even a decent big league career. As The Wire’s Snoop memorably said, “Deserve got nothing to do with it.”

That one day with the UK kids does not mean that Santander will stick around as a good player on the next good Orioles team. It would be cool if that happens anyway. The Orioles have control of Santander through the 2023 season, so they’ve got a few years to get that good team built. The surprise success of Santander in 2019 could bring them one piece closer to pulling that off a little sooner than the pessimistic scenarios we might have envisioned this time a year ago.

Tomorrow: Chance Sisco/Pedro Severino