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Anthony Santander has struggled to recapture the magic of last season

The Orioles right fielder was terrific a year ago, but trouble staying healthy has translated to poor performance at the plate and in the field. Now his future in Baltimore is unclear.

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The main goal of this years long rebuild that the Orioles continue to endure has always been to drastically improve the methods by which the organization evaluates, acquires, and develops young talent. While the early signs on that front are positive, we won’t know the true outcome for a while longer.

An aspect that could be somewhat easier to evaluate, however, is how the players that were at or near the major league level prior to the appointment of the Mike Elias-led front office have improved since. As could be expected, it’s been a mixed bag.

Cedric Mullins and John Means have turned into All-Star caliber players that could play a role on the next competitive team in Baltimore, while the signs have been less favorable for the likes of DJ Stewart and Dean Kremer. A player that could still fall into either category is Anthony Santander.

Santander came to Baltimore via the 2016 Rule 5 Draft, and then made his big league debut in August of 2017 following a lengthy injury spell, something that has become a bit of a theme in his career. While the switch-hitter had always shown promise, it took until the pandemic-shortened 2020 season for him to truly break out.

Over 37 games, Santander hit .261/.315/.575 with a 136 OPS+, 11 home runs, 13 doubles, and 32 RBI. It was, by far, the best stretch of his career. He even had success in the field and was named as a finalist for that year’s Gold Glove awards. The performance captured the attention of other organizations as well, and they reportedly came calling over the winter.

Obviously, Santander stayed in Baltimore, and seemed poised to develop even further in 2021. But to this point, that hasn’t happened. In fact, the outfielder has seemingly regressed. A sprained left ankle robbed him of a full month, but no matter how you slice it his stat line looks rough.

Through 44 games played, Santander owns a .239/.270/.387 triple slash, a 79 OPS+, four home runs, 12 doubles, and 16 RBI. It’s been worse in the field as well, where he has been worth -5 outs above average and his sprint speed has decreased from 26.8 feet per second to 26.

While the sprint speed and worsening defense are certainly a concern, the Orioles chief worry must be around Santander’s struggles at the plate. It’s not simply that he has been “bad,” but he has been bad in a way that looks much more similar to his pre-2020 profile.

Santander’s average launch angle has been nearly cut in half to 13.5 in 2021 from 24.8 in 2020. It was 15.3 in 2019.

Santander is hitting ground balls 39.7% of the time this year. That number was 23.6% in 2020 and 39.2% in 2019.

Santander has gone to the opposite field 21.3% of the time in 2021. That is down from 32% in 2020, the highest mark of his career, but is quite similar to his 23.8% in 2019.

His strikeout rates from 2019 through 2021 have looked like this: 21.2%, 15.2%, and 25.7%. His walk rates have looked like this: 4.7%, 6.1%, 3.4%.

You get the idea. Whatever strides Santander made in 2020 appear to have been completely wiped out in 2021. But it doesn’t seem to have shaken the confidence the Orioles have in their right fielder. An report from earlier in the month indicated that while Santander is available for trade, the asking price is said to be “insane,” a reflection of both his 2020 production and the club’s belief in his potential. Of course, that could come down as the trade deadline draws closer.

It’s not as if the Orioles have a particularly difficult decision to make here. Santander is their starting right fielder. There is little incentive to make a change at the moment if performance is the only concern. Clearly, the offers they received during the off-season weren’t enticing enough to accept. It’s unlikely that has changed given the player’s struggles.

And there aren’t any internal options knocking down the door for playing time just. DJ Stewart’s offensive production has been fine (100 OPS+), but he has shown to be a liability in the field and would not seem to have the upside of Santander. In the minors, Yusniel Diaz could make a case before the year is out, but yet another injury has limited him to just 11 games this year.

Santander’s regression this season has been disappointing, and it could be proof that his 2020 season was really just one nice month. It’s also possible that he is dealing with lingering issues from the oblique injury that afflicted him a year ago, and possibly the ankle sprain from earlier this year. It’s easy to fall back into bad habits when compensating for something. Or maybe he has just had a rough first half and will turn things around.

Whatever the case may be, the way in which Santander performs in the coming months could prove crucial to the Orioles continued rebuild. Maybe he is yet another stop gap solution. Perhaps he is the next big trade candidate. And it’s always possible that Santander will be the club’s right fielder of both the present and the future.