Anthony Santander may have been the best thing about what was a surprisingly entertaining Orioles team a season ago. The former Rule 5 pick put up the best offensive numbers of his career (.261/.315/.575, 132 wRC+) and was named a Gold Glove finalist in right field. For his efforts, Santander was named the Most Valuable Oriole in September and, it seems, he has found himself on the trading block in January.
The immediate reaction to the news that Santander is available is, understandably, one of annoyance. After all, he will be just 26 years old for all of the 2021 season. He is due to to make a reasonable salary just south of $2.5 million. And he can’t even hit free agency until 2025. This is his prime, and the Orioles are in a position to only get better over the next few seasons. Why trade this man?
That is all legitimate. While those reasons may not ultimately prevent the Orioles from trading Santander this winter, they do give the organization immense leverage in any possible negotiations and allow them to get as much in return as they possibly could.
At the same time, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand why Mike Elias may find the idea of trading away what is arguably his best player an attractive one.
What we discussed just a moment ago is a major factor. There aren’t many more valuable assets in the game than a young player with a major league track record and multiple years of team control ahead of him. If the Orioles are going to swing an impact trade over the next couple of months, Santander is the only player on the entire roster (apart from a healthy Trey Mancini) with the potential to land them a somewhat significant return.
This all goes back to Elias’s philosophy of developing a “pipeline” of talent to Baltimore. If he can deal a good young player now for three younger players that he believes have a chance at similar production in the big leagues two years from now he is going to do it.
Let’s get into Santander’s production. He was a force at the plate last summer, adding 18 points to his on-base percentage and 99 points to his slugging percentage over 2019. All the while he cut down on his strikeout rate by six percent and found the barrel of his bat more often than any other time in his career. It was impressive.
But this was all done over a short sample size of 37 games. In a normal season that would represent less than a quarter of a team’s games. Players don’t become superstars for playing well one-fourth of the time. A decent example is Santander’s 2019 campaign. Between June 7 and July 30 he played in 45 games and hit .298/.333/.486 with seven home runs. That’s a nice stretch. But his entire season encompassed 93 MLB games and he ended with a 101 OPS+, one percent above league average.
Another consideration for all teams, but especially the Orioles, is physical health. Santander missed the final sprint in 2020 with an oblique injury. There is no indication that it impacted his offseason, and he should be ready to go for spring training. But it’s just the latest in a lengthy history of injury issues for the outfielder.
Prior to his time with the Orioles, Santander missed more than a month in 2013, three months in 2014, and two months in 2015 with a recurring elbow injury. That elbow flared up again in 2017 and kept him off the field for most of that season. And he had another month-long spell on the IL in 2018. It’s become a pattern, and it means Santander may need more frequent days off, occasional stints at DH, or that he just cannot be counted on for 162 games.
But what may be more important than all of this is to examine the Orioles current outfield situation to see if they could handle the trading away of a player that is in position to be an everyday right fielder for the next four seasons.
Left field would seem to be Ryan Mountcastle’s job for the forseeable future. There are improvements to be made defensively, but his bat is more than good enough to make up for the fielding issues.
In center the team has a good problem with Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins battling for playing time. It’s possible neither one is the long term solution, but both are solid contributors on defense. Plus, while Santander could play center in a pinch, it’s not ideal, so it doesn’t factor much into where he ends up.
Right field is actually where things get interesting. Santander has proved he can handle both sides of the ball. But it’s not as if the Orioles don’t have other options down on the farm.
Yusniel Diaz’s star has dimmed over the last two seasons, but he still projects as an everyday player. He has the arm for right field and will be just 24 years old for all of 2021.
And of course there is Heston Kjerstad. The Orioles took him with the second overall pick in June because they love his power potential and think his arm makes him a fit for right field. Provided that he performs well enough in the minors, that position will be his once he is deemed ready.
If the baseball gods are kind to the Orioles, there is a clear path that Elias can take here: trade Santander, give Diaz the job in right field for two or three years, trade Diaz, give Kjerstad the job in 2024, win the World Series in 2027.
The Orioles are more than one or two players away from being a serious contender in their division let alone the entire league. Trading away a player like Santander would hurt in the short term, but could help with their overall ambitions. For now, it does not sound as if anything is imminent. But it is a sign that our fanbase may need to get used to the front office dealing away popular young players earlier than we would have expected.