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Santander’s return should provide offensive spark for Orioles

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The switch-hitter struggled early this season before missing a month with a sprained ankle, but Santander appears set to provide Baltimore a much needed boost at the plate.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Orioles began this week ranked 24th in runs scored with 154. They held the 18th best average at .231 and their 39 home runs tied for 22nd. Baltimore’s Pythagorean win record sat at 17-23— a match with their true record after avoiding a sweep against New York.

With 154 runs scored and 177 runs allowed, the team is exactly what the math says they should be. Unfortunately for Baltimore, that does not inspire much optimism for the remainder of the season. So, outside of luck, how can Baltimore improve their performance?

A few weeks ago I wrote that the Orioles offense should improve as the season goes on. I pointed to disappointing totals from Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle, and that the pair of non-outfielders were due for a bump. Mancini has slashed .333/.417/.619 over the last seven days, while Mountcastle has continued to struggle after a brief spike at the plate.

I pointed to Rylan Bannon and Jahmai Jones and how they could eventually replace the struggling Rio Ruiz and Ramón Urías, but all indications point to Baltimore keeping the pair of prospects on the farm for the near future. Although, the addition of Stevie Wilkerson in place of Ruiz cannot hurt.

Veteran Austin Wynns and former Braves’ prospect Brett Cumberland remain at Triple-A, but the Orioles do not seem willing to pull the plug on Chance Sisco quite yet.

With all that being said, should there be any hope for the near future?

The answer to that question is yes, and it comes in the form of the most popular Venezuelan outfielder in the United Kingdom.

I failed to mention Santander last time out because I had no idea when the 26-year-old would return from the injured list. Santander left a game on April 20 with a left ankle sprain, but an original 2-4 week timetable eventually shifted to a full month away from Baltimore.

Fortunately, Santander appears to be nearly back to 100% and has already completed a rehab assignment with Double-A Bowie. Santander will need to complete COVID-19 protocols before he returns to the team.

On Sunday, Santander reminded everyone what type of player he can be. Batting second in the Baysox lineup, Santander finished 3-4 with a home run, a walk, two RBIs and three runs scored. Sure it’s just one game against lower competition, but the totals show he’s ready to compete again.

Santander impressed during last year’s shortened season by slashing .261/.315/.575 through 37 games. The former Rule 5 pick appeared on pace for far more than his 11 home run total, but suffered a season-ending injury to his left oblique.

The numbers may have came in a small sample size, but Santander hit an identical .261 through 93 games in 2019. His raw power improved in 2020, but even somewhere in the middle would represent a huge boost for Baltimore.

Santander struggled out of the gate this season with just 11 hits in 56 at bats. Two of those hits left the yard, but Tony struck out 17 times compared to just two walks. Those numbers, on the other hand, would not represent a huge boost for Baltimore.

His 16 games in 2021 appear to be the outlier here. Santander’s name was frequently floated in trade rumors throughout spring training, but he would likely need a dominant and healthy run if the Orioles were to gain a fair market value for the outfielder at the deadline.

There is no rush to deal away Santander. He becomes arbitration eligible next season, but will not reach free agency until 2025. Santander, if healthy, could solidify Baltimore’s outfield for the next few years while hitting in the heart of the order.

Santander’s arrival would likely bump Ryan McKenna back down to Norfolk. McKenna has played stellar defense, but has just five hits in 24 at bats. Even if McKenna projects as a fourth outfielder, regular at bats at Triple-A seem to be in the speedster’s best interest. Santander’s return would also slide the struggling DJ Stewart to a bench bat/designated hitter role where Brandon Hyde can pick and choose when to send out the left-handed hitter.

Santander’s early struggles may provide some cause for concern, but they do not fit his profile as a hitter. The switch-hitter struck out in just 15.6% of his plate appearances in 2020, and Hyde did not seem concerned.

Following four consecutive games with a hit, Hyde said that the league had discovered that Santander was a quality hitter. They were “pitching him tough,” and Santander needed to “shrink his strikezone a little bit and maybe change his approach.”

Those remarks came on April 18. Santander picked up a hit the next day, and recorded another in his only at bat before leaving with the injury. The league got the jump on Santander at the beginning of the season, but he’s had plenty of time to plan adjustments over the last month.