Anthony Santander is arguably the best Rule 5 draft pick in Orioles history besides Paul Blair. And he’s only 26 years old. The switch-hitting outfielder has been with the club since 2017 — after being plucked from the Cleveland Indians system — and has slowly developed over the years.
After hitting .261/.297/.476 with 20 home runs over 93 games in 2019, Santander had a breakout of sorts last year. In just 153 at-bats (37 games) in 2020, Santander hit 11 home runs, slugged .575, and put up a .890 OPS.
Unable to follow up his strong 2020 season initially — even though he missed most of September last year with an oblique strain — Santander’s bat has come to life more recently. For context, he was hitting .223/.275/.373 at the end of July. As of this morning, Santander’s season-long slash line is .254/.298/.459. What a difference a month makes!
In August, Santander has a .360/.385/.747 batting line and an OPS of 1.131. That includes a strong performance last night against the Angels, when the Orioles scored 10 runs and snapped their 19-game losing streak. Santander had three hits in four at-bats, which included a double and a home run.
But there is a downside unfortunately. Even when he’s on fire at the plate, Santander doesn’t work many walks. A closer look at his numbers this month shows just two walks in 75 at-bats. Yes, he’s also got five doubles and eight home runs in 20 games in August. But most batters tend to walk more when they’re on a hot streak, whether they’re just seeing the ball well or pitchers are being more cautious, or both.
Plate discipline is not one of Santander’s strengths. He entered the 2021 season with a career on-base percentage of .292. In 330 plate appearances this year to date, he’s got a .295 OBP.
Even though Santander doesn’t bring elite on-base skills to the table, he’s got plenty of other strengths. His power, for example. That Eutaw Street home run he hit a couple of nights ago was a no-doubter.
His defense in right field is another bonus. When he got to the Orioles in 2017, defense wasn’t his calling card. But at the end of the 2020 season, he was an American League Gold Glove Award finalist.
A big reason — if not the reason — for his inconsistency in 2021 is Santander’s health. He sprained his left ankle back on April 21 and spent a month on the injured list. Here we are near the end of August, and the ankle is still bothering him. He also landed on the injured list in late July — this time due to COVID-19 protocols — and missed about 10 games.
Going back to his first year with the O’s, Santander spent most of the 2017 season resting and rehabbing a strained right forearm. So there’s an injury pattern here. If he could stay healthy for an entire season, it could do wonders for his value and further development.
So what might Santander’s future with the Orioles hold? As is the case with a low-budget rebuilding team like Baltimore, money is a chief concern. Mike Elias and company will have to weigh Santander’s value against the annual salary increases that he's going to require over the next several years.
The Orioles won their arbitration case against Santander this past offseason. But the outfielder still got a substantial raise. He went from earning a prorated salary of $212,037 last year to $2.1 million this year, per Spotrac. If he can carry his August success through September, Santander should be in line for another healthy raise this offseason. The earliest he can become a free agent is 2025.
Important to note, there were trade rumblings over the winter involving Santander. But no deal came to fruition. The O’s are relatively flush with organizational outfield depth, so if Santander stays hot in September and keeps boosting his offensive numbers, maybe the Orioles are more inclined to move him this winter. Or perhaps they keep him for the first half of the 2022 season and then try to trade him at next year’s midseason deadline. If he brought back a package including some sort of relief help and/or a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher, could it be worth exploring a trade then?
There are six games left in August, so we’ll see if Santander can stay hot at the plate. Manager Brandon Hyde has been resting Santander and his ankle occasionally with games on the bench or at DH. They’ll have to keep managing the injury to give Santander the best chance to finish strong and boost those batting numbers.