It seemed like Anthony Santander had turned the corner during the shortened 2020 season. He had the hottest bat on the Orioles’ roster, and his glove was garnering national attention. The 2021 season was lining up to be his catapult into stardom. But it never happened. A slow start to the year and nagging injuries torpedoed his campaign before it ever really got going, and now there are massive questions about what his role on this team will be moving forward.
Santander was placed on the IL three separate times with two different injuries this season. He had a left ankle sprain in April and ended the year with a right knee sprain. Injuries have been the thing that has continuously held Santander back from showing his full potential throughout his career. An oblique injury ended his season in 2020, and almost his entire 2017 season was lost to a forearm strain.
When the outfielder did play this year, his performance was uneven and lacked punch. Through the end of July, he had hit just six total home runs. August was the month that saved his season. He was healthy the whole time, and showed out with a .309/.350/.617 batting line to go with eight home runs and five doubles. But it was not to remain. He slumped to a .636 OPS in September before being placed on the IL.
O’s manager Brandon Hyde opted to put Santander in the DH role more often this season as a measure to keep his bat in the lineup and his body healthy. Of the 28 times he has DH’ed in his career, 21 of them occurred in 2021. His performance as DH was not ideal (.683 OPS), but it’s possible the innings off his feet added a few games to his season. Given his injury history, this could be a viable solution moving forward.
That move had the added benefit of removing Santander’s glove from the equation. While he did look steady in 2020 and even made some fantastic catches, his defense took a dramatic step back in 2021. He was worth -6 outs above average, and Baseball Savant had him in the 19th percentile of outfielder jump. Pair that with below-average speed, and you have a fielder that you do not feel particularly confident in playing.
Of course, it is unclear what significance the injuries played into that performance. Santander was noticeably slow and hobbled for nearly the entire summer. He was running gingerly, both in the outfield and around the bases. But you cannot simply write off the injuries either and say he will be back to 100% in 2022. Maybe he will be, but the odds of him experiencing another set-back are present as well.
Santander was reportedly on the trading block last winter, with the Miami Marlins especially interested. Nothing happened there, and instead the O’s paid him $2.1 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. The outfielder will be eligible for arbitration once again this offseason, and estimates are that he will receive a raise to $3.7 million for 2022. That is a reasonable wage for a 27-year-old player that, over the entirety of his career, has been a league-average hitter. But it also makes Santander into one of the players that the Orioles may most actively attempt to move over the winter.
The Orioles do not have the outfield logjam that they envisioned entering the 2021 season Ryan Mountcastle cannot play left field. Yusniel Diaz had a nightmare season in the minors. Ryan McKenna and Tyler Nevin both look more like role players that everyday starters. And there is no big-time prospect on the immediate horizon with Heston Kjerstad and Colton Cowser still a couple years from Baltimore (although Kyle Stowers could force his way into the 40-man conversation soon).
But with the front office apparently still working on a shoestring budget when it comes to major league payroll, they may prefer to take a flier on someone in free agency and receive whatever sort of modest prospect return that a Santander trade would generate.
That is where things could get tricky. On the Orioles, Santander is the everyday right fielder, but given his recent production and injury history it is unclear on how many other teams he would take on that same role. The argument of trading his “potential” seem to have all but fizzled. He has played in parts of five big league seasons. At a certain point, he is who he is, and that could be worth relatively little in a swap.
Even still, Santander has shown enough with his bat that the Orioles should still offer him a contract for 2022. They have the money to pay a sub-$4 million salary, there are no obvious internal replacement, and a trade could prove easier to pull off in the season without CBA negotiations hanging overhead.
Tomorrow: Cole Sulser