Everyone expected the Orioles to maintain a sub-.500 record this year, but not many predicted exactly how it’d happen. The Orioles bullpen has been firing on all cylinders since the beginning of the regular season. The rotation got off to a rocky start, but it has settled in for a nice stretch recently. And that is in spite of ominous reports that ace John Means is out for the year.
Which brings us to the offense.
With the Orioles’ bats struggling over the first couple weeks of the season, there are not many positives when you look up and down the lineup. Sure, there’s some bad luck on balls in play, which hopefully should balance out over time. One exception in the O’s lineup, though, is Anthony Santander.
Baltimore’s batting order has been in flux early on, with the only real certainty being Cedric Mullins in the leadoff spot. The same handful of guys – Ryan Mountcastle, Trey Mancini, Austin Hays, and Santander – bat somewhere in the middle of the order, but get shuffled around frequently.
In an effort to jump start the offense, O’s manager Brandon Hyde has put Santander into the no. 2 spot in the batting order the past couple games. It makes sense because the young outfielder has been the Orioles’ hottest hitter this year.
Santander went 2-for-4 yesterday with a single and a double, raising his triple slash line to .297/.469/.432 over the first 12 games of the season.
What’s even more impressive is Santander’s plate patience. He’s walked more than he’s struck out – by a ratio of 10:8 – which is very out of character. Since his rookie year with the O’s in 2017, Santander has been known as a free swinger with low OBP numbers. Over 298 career games, his OBP is .297.
Just look back several years to see how different Santander’s on-base numbers were. Consider the Covid-19 shortened 2020 season, in which he walked 10 times in 37 total games. Look at last year, when Santander walked 23 times in 110 games.
The outfielder’s start is a far cry from how he kicked off the 2021 season, when he slashed .209/.255/.349 in the first 12 games, with two walks and 14 strikeouts.
Right now, Santander is leading the way for a young Orioles team that is currently first in the American League in walks with 47. Jorge Mateo has four walks and a .341 OBP in 11 games, which is a modest improvement after he drew seven walks in 32 games with Baltimore last year. And Austin Hays has the second most walks (6) on the team after Santander.
We’ll need a lot more time to see if this disciplined plate approach sticks with the O’s. But maybe the new hitting coach tandem of Matt Borgschulte and Ryan Fuller have found a way to reach these hitters and get buy-in to their program.
Even still, Santander’s walk rate is suspiciously high right now. So if he can maintain anything resembling close to what he’s doing now, it can only help his trade value. Santander should be an attractive commodity once the trade deadline draws closer. He’s 27 years old and is making $3.15 million this season. The earliest he can become a free agent is 2025.
If Santander can continue his hot-hitting ways through the first half of the season, the O’s could sell high and probably get a solid return.
At this juncture of his career, which is going on five years now, Santander has been a better second-half player. In the first half of the year, he’s carrying a .235/.299/.378 batting line. But in the second half, his batting average improves and his slugging percentage jumps way up (.257/.289/.482).
With several promising outfield prospects – like Colton Cowser, Kyle Stowers, Yusniel Diaz, and Heston Kjerstad, although some are injured – the Orioles would be dealing from a place of strength. And even though Santander is controllable for a few more years, he’ll get more expensive through arbitration every year, especially if he maintains his current pace at the plate for a full season.
On the other hand, maybe the O’s surprise us all and determine that Santander is too valuable to let go. Maybe they’ll lock him up with a long-term deal, or buy out some of his arbitration years. You never know.