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Despite injury-shortened 2020, Anthony Santander was a worthy Most Valuable Oriole

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The former Rule 5 pick had a breakout year for the Birds, sitting atop the club leaderboards in every major offensive category even after missing a chunk of the season.

New York Mets v Baltimore Orioles Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

There used to be a running joke among Orioles fans that the Rule 5 draft was Dan Duquette’s Christmas.

Nobody enjoyed the annual exercise in plucking a fringe prospect from another team’s minor league system more than the former Orioles general manager. During his seven years at the helm, Duquette selected at least one player in every single Rule 5 draft; the Orioles acquired a whopping 11 players in the Rule 5, either by picking them directly or trading for another team’s acquisition immediately after the draft. And the O’s weren’t just doing it for kicks and giggles — they legitimately wanted most of those players to stick around. Of those 11 players, the Orioles kept seven of them on their big league roster for at least part of the following season in hopes of keeping them in the organization for the long haul.

It was, in the vast majority of cases, a fruitless exercise. By rule, the Orioles couldn’t option those Rule 5ers to the minors for a year without offering them back to their former teams, and so the club crippled its roster flexibility in the vain hope that the players would eventually amount to something. They didn’t. Most showed exactly why they’d been left off their former club’s 40-man roster in the first place; they had serious flaws in their game and little to no long-term future in the bigs.

So why go through this ridiculous rigmarole in the first place?

Because if you do it often enough, sift through enough chaff, throw enough darts at the wall, once in a while you’ll strike gold with an Anthony Santander.

It’s been an unusual path to stardom for Santander. He was 22 when the O’s grabbed him in the 2016 Rule 5 draft from Cleveland, with whom the Venezuela native had signed as an amateur free agent in 2011. Though he was coming off a monster year at High-A Lynchburg — 20 homers, 95 RBIs, and an .862 OPS in 128 games — he’d never played as high as Double-A and was also nursing a strained forearm. He was the last of the 18 picks in that year’s Rule 5 draft, and not even the first for the Orioles (who plucked outfielder Aneury Tavarez from the Red Sox six picks earlier). Four years later, Santander is the only one of those 18 players who’s still in the majors with the club that chose him.

He faced long odds of even sticking with the team at first, but the Birds were able to stash him on the disabled list for four and a half months, then fulfilled his Rule 5 obligations by activating him for 90 days split between the 2017 and 2018 seasons. The inexperienced Santander was overmatched at the major league level, but his raw talent was apparent. After finally getting his feet wet at Triple-A Norfolk last year, Santander returned to the majors a much more polished player, breaking out in 2019 with 20 homers, 59 RBIs, and a .261/.297/.476 batting line in 93 games. A woeful late-season slump brought down his overall numbers, but he cemented himself into the team’s plans for 2020.

And this year, it all clicked.

Santander, from the beginning of this truncated season, looked as if he’d been hitting in the middle of a major league lineup for his entire career. He hit the ball with authority, smacking 47 balls with an exit velocity over 95 mph. He hit for power, averaging a home run every 15 plate appearances, up from every 20.25 PAs a year ago. He became more selective at the plate; he struck out only 2.5 times for every walk, a massive improvement over his 4.5 mark in 2019.

And he made consistent contact. From Aug. 5 through 23, Santander strung together an 18-game hitting streak, the longest by an Oriole since Nick Markakis in 2014.

OK, he didn’t quite catch DiMaggio. But it was a nice streak nonetheless.

Not to be lost in Santander’s offensive exploits was that he has also turned himself into a pretty decent outfielder. This year, manning exclusively right field after an ill-fated audition in center in 2019, Santander was worth eight Defensive Runs Saved, per FanGraphs, and he led the club with four outfield assists.

On Sept. 4, the Orioles’ 37th game of the season, Santander was leading the American League in extra-base hits (25) and was tied for second in doubles (13), third in total bases (88), and tied for third in RBIs (32). But that’s when his storybook 2020 season reached its unhappy end. He suffered an oblique strain in the opener of a doubleheader against the Yankees, landed on the injured list, and missed the rest of the season.

Santander’s absence from the lineup was felt immediately. After his injury, the Orioles went 9-14 for the rest of the season, and the offense was held to two or fewer runs in 11 of those games.

Even after playing just 37 of the club’s 60 games, Santander finished the season tied for the team lead in RBIs (32, along with Rio Ruiz), second in home runs (11, behind Renato Nunez’s 12), and second in total bases (88, behind Nunez’s 96). His .890 OPS trailed only Jose Iglesias’s .956. He led the team with a 1.5 Wins Above Replacement by Baseball Reference’s reckoning; FanGraphs’ version had him second at 0.9, behind Iglesias (1.6).

On Sept. 25, Santander was voted Most Valuable Oriole for the 2020 season by members of the local media. You know you’ve had a special season when you win the MVO award while missing more than a third of your team’s games. (No position player had won MVO while playing that little since Dave Philley in 1955, who appeared in just 53 percent of the Orioles’ 156 games that year.)

It’s exciting to think what the future might hold for Santander, who turns 26 a week from today and has four more years under team control. If he can keep up this type of offense for a full, 162-game season — without falling victim to the September swoon that plagued him a year ago — he could remain a key cog in the O’s lineup as the team returns to contention.

Not bad for a Rule 5 pick. Maybe Dan Duquette was on to something after all.