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Anthony Santander broke out offensively but could be trade bait soon

The former Rule 5 pick enjoyed his best season yet at the plate, but does he fit into the Orioles’ long-term plans?

Toronto Blue Jays v Baltimore Orioles - Game One
There’s that sweet swing.
Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

I’m going to be honest with you, folks. Back in July, I didn’t think there was any way we’d be writing an Anthony Santander post this October.

After all, Camden Chat’s season in review series only covers players who finish the season in the Orioles’ organization. And Santander seemed a prime candidate to be traded at the Aug. 2 deadline. He fell into that happy medium of being young and productive enough that other teams would have interest in his bat, while being replaceable enough that the Orioles could afford to part with him. Santander is the closest O’s outfielder to free agency (after the 2024 season) and will see his salary increase in his two remaining years of arbitration, while the O’s system is rich in young, athletic outfielders who provide the kind of defensive prowess Santander lacks.

And if the Orioles’ 2022 season had played out the way most “experts” predicted it would — as a cellar-dwelling, non-competitive club — Santander may well have been sent packing at the deadline. But things change when you’re an unexpected contender. The Orioles, who sat at .500 and were three games back of a wild card spot at the start of August, did deal Trey Mancini and Jorge López, but stopped short of selling Santander. Perhaps there wasn’t overwhelming trade interest in the O’s right fielder. Or perhaps the Orioles were hedging their bets, wanting to keep their most prolific slugger in the lineup for the club’s frantic postseason push.

The O’s ultimately fell short, as we know. But Santander did all he could to try to power the Birds into the playoffs.

After not being dealt, Santander crushed 14 home runs in the final two-plus months, 10 of them in September and the week’s worth of October games. From Aug. 19 onward — hooray, arbitrary endpoints! — Santander’s 13 home runs were tied with Albert Pujols for third most in the majors, trailing only two guys you might have heard of: Aaron Judge and Mike Trout, who each hit 16.

Still, Santander — whose 152 games played were 42 more than his previous career high — may have begun to wear down in the season’s waning weeks. Even with all those dingers, he batted just .177 with a .250 on-base percentage in September/October, his worst marks of any month. Home runs aside, you wouldn’t confuse him with Pujols, Judge, or Trout just yet.

Santander’s first full, healthy season in the majors, though, was an overall success at the dish. Battling back from an underwhelming 2021 season in which he was limited by knee and hamstring injuries, Santander returned to the slugging form that earned him Most Valuable Oriole honors in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. This year he topped the 20-homer mark for the first time, leading the club in roundtrippers (33) and slugging percentage (.455)...and also RBIs (89), if you’re into that sort of thing. Per Statcast, Santander rated in the 87th percentile in xSLG (.471) and the 88th in xwOBA (.352).

Even Santander’s plate discipline, never known as his strong suit, was improved. Until his final-month slump dropped his overall OBP to .318, he was tracking in the .330s-.340s for much of the season, thanks to an increased focus on laying off pitches outside the zone. His 8.5 percent walk rate was by far the highest of his career, besting his previous mark of 6.1 during that 37-game sample size in 2020. He also shaved his strikeout rate to 18.9 percent, more than a four-point drop from last year’s 23.1.

With his prodigious power and now-acceptable on-base ability, the 2022 version of Santander was a hitter who could fit into any lineup in baseball. He’s more than realized the potential the O’s saw in him back in 2016, when then-GM Dan Duquette plucked Santander — then a 22-year-old playing at High-A in the Cleveland organization, and coming off shoulder surgery — in the Rule 5 draft. There’s a running joke among O’s fans that Rule 5 day was like Christmas for the Duquette-era Orioles, who made at least one selection in each of his eight years at the helm. Santander has almost single-handedly justified Duquette’s obsession, becoming the best player the O’s acquired in that draft. (No offense, Ryan Flaherty.)

Unfortunately for Santander, there’s more to baseball than just hitting, and he doesn’t exactly shine in other facets of the game. His speed is negligible, making him more or less a non-factor on the basepaths. And his defense has been especially shaky the last couple of years, falling off significantly following Santander’s surprising Gold Glove nomination in right field in 2020.

You could chalk up Santander’s defensive woes in 2021 — in which he was worth -4 Outs Above Average and registered -1 Defensive Runs Saved — to his season-long leg injuries that noticeably slowed him in the field. This year, back at full health, Santander did appear to be moving around more freely, but there wasn’t much improvement in his defensive stats. In right field, he graded out okay, logging 3 DRS but zero OAA in his 84 games. But when Brandon Hyde switched him to left field, things got ugly. Santander was tagged with a whopping -8 DRS and -5 OAA in just 37 games there. Before you blame the revamped left-field dimensions at Camden Yards, let me stop you there: Santander started only two games in left field at home. Hyde knew better than to put the range-challenged Santander in that cavernous patch of green.

Whether starting in left or right, Santander was often subbed out for a defensive replacement when the O’s were leading in the late innings, and he was shifted to designated hitter duty a lot more often after the Mancini trade. Moving forward, the Orioles’ best defensive outfield alignment doesn’t include Santander, part of the reason why many thought the Orioles would trade him.

They still could. The O’s expect to be active this offseason, acquiring pieces to help them make the final push into playoff contenders while swapping out those who might not be the best fit. Few other Orioles can match Santander’s power bat, but if the front office wants to build a lineup of athletic, cost-controlled youngsters, then Santander — who turned 28 last week — could find himself squeezed out, especially with top outfield prospect Colton Cowser just one step away from the majors at Triple-A Norfolk. Santander’s best position is DH, but the O’s might want more flexibility at that spot, allowing Adley Rutschman to stay in the lineup when he’s not catching.

Assuming there’s a viable trade market for two years of Santander’s services — as there should be, despite his flaws — this might indeed be the last time we write about him in our Orioles player in review series. If so, it’s been a good run.

Previous 2022 Orioles player reviews: Bruce Zimmermann, Robinson Chirinos, Joey Krehbiel, Tyler Nevin, Nick Vespi/Logan Gillaspie, Spenser Watkins, Rougned Odor, Ryan McKenna, Kyle Bradish, Austin Hays, Keegan Akin, Ryan Mountcastle

Tomorrow: Jordan Lyles