Most of Birdland thought they had Anthony Santander figured out coming into this season. He was a useful, switch-hitting corner outfielder who would give you decent power from both sides of the plate, but not much else. Sure, he went above and beyond his normal expectations in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. That was an anomaly though, a small sample size in circumstances that would never be replicated. At least that’s what we all thought.
Then the 2022 season got underway and Santander, like the entire Orioles organization, has continually exceeded expectations. After another two home runs Monday against Toronto, Tony Taters stretched his home run total to 27—a team-high and career-best number. The six-year vet also leads these young Birds in RBIs, slugging%, OPS and extra-base hits.
The talk surrounding the Orioles lineup often centers around whether Cedric Mullins can get back the highs he displayed in 2021. Or around the mercurial nature of Ryan Mountcastle and Austin Hays’ production. Sometimes the talk ceases altogether and Birdland collectively just sits in awe of the wondrous displays by Adley Rutschman and (now) GUNNAR HENDERSON—though I can’t really blame anyone for that.
However, while all of that has gone on around him, Santander has continued to be an offensive heartbeat for a group that has often collectively struggled to find its timing at the plate. In the 43 games since the All-Star break—a period where the Orioles’ offensive struggles have become more unnerving—Santander has gotten even better. Over that stretch, the O’s three-hole hitter has put up a .291/.348/.570 triple slash line, while picking up 22 XBHs and 31 RBIs. Those numbers stand out even more when compared to Mountcastle and Hays, who are hitting .187 and .203 respectively since the end of July.
The numbers put up by Santander don’t just beg the question of whether or not the UK’s favorite outfielder deserves more praise from Birdland. Earlier in the year, I viewed Santander’s long-term future with this franchise as being relatively short. At the big league level, Mullins and Hays had established themselves in a way that made it seem like they’d lock down CF and one of the corner OF spots for the next 5+ seasons. There was also the rise of prospects Kyle Stowers and Colton Cowser, and the looming presence of a Heston Kjerstad breakthrough and/or more outfield prospects coming from the draft. All of this combined to present a picture of an outfield depth chart becoming very crowded very soon.
While there was never any doubt that Santander would stick on the Orioles roster through the 2022 season, he seemed like a prime candidate to be on the trade block come winter. It was easy to envision a scenario where he was the “major league ready” player in a trade that brought the Orioles an upgrade in their starting rotation or a more proven middle-of-the-lineup bat. Now, the question that surrounds Santander is whether or not he’s earned a more important long-term role with this franchise.
Santander’s defense is the biggest detractor in the argument for inclusion in the Orioles' long-term plans. Simply put, he’s one of the worst defensive outfielders in all of MLB. Out of 135 qualified major league outfielders, Santander ranks 121st in Outs Above Average. His OAA numbers are particularly bad on plays where he has to go to his right—which, considering he mostly plays RF in Camden Yards, would be the majority of his opportunities. Speaking of fielding opportunities, he’s also the 8th worst OF in terms of converting opportunities into outs.
These numbers make it clear that, while Santander has hit well enough for the Orioles to keep in their lineup and their plans, his days as an everyday outfielder should be numbered. And that number should be small, very small. It has been reported that Santander has been working throughout the year to learn to play first base. While moving him to first certainly seems like a move that could limit his defensive downside, the fact that Santander has yet to play an inning at first stills leaves plenty of room for doubt.
The other problem presented by a potential move to first base for Santander is what to do with Ryan Mountcastle if you make that move. While Mountcastle has failed to improve upon his impressive rookie season, he still represents an important part of the Orioles lineup moving forward. Also, unlike Santander, Mountcastle has provided the O’s with plus defense, ranking in the 74th percentile for OAA among first basemen.
While a platoon of the two at first base seems like a potential resolution, it’s not as simple as “Santander plays against righties, Mountcastle against lefties.” Throughout 2022, the two have similar batting average and slugging percentage against righties, while Santander has a clear advantage in OBP. Mountcastle is better against lefties, but Santander is one of the best hitters in baseball against southpaws.
Many will question “why not just play Santander as the everyday DH?” While Santander will surely see more games at DH in 2023 than in 2022, this hardly feels like the perfect solution. The Orioles will undoubtedly want to keep the DH role open for Adley Rutschman on the days he doesn’t catch. It also wouldn’t be surprising for the Orioles to use the DH role to give ABs to prospects who may not be ready to contribute defensively but have a major league-caliber bat.
In-depth self-scouting and a more nuanced approach to their lineup will be the Orioles' best way to keep Santander’s bat in the lineup without compromising their defense. Santander has proven a much better hitter than Mountcastle this year against fastballs, whereas Mountcastle gets the edge against breaking balls. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Brandon Hyde rolls out Santander at 1B against a flame-throwing starter, but has Mountcastle in there against more of a junkballer. It shouldn’t feel odd in 2023 if Santander has a series where he starts one game in the outfield, one at first, and the third at DH—depending on the pitchers the O’s are facing.
Let’s make one last thing clear: the fact that the Orioles are faced with this dilemma of how to best utilize a good hitter is a great problem to have. Throughout 2022, Birdland has seen this franchise take players with untapped potential—Jorge Mateo, Felix Bautista, etc.—and provide them with the coaching and opportunities to allow them to shine. Santander is no different in this regard, as it’s clear he and this coaching staff have put in the hard work to make him a better player.
Santander once seemed like a placeholder for prospects in the pipeline. Now, he has proven that he deserves consideration for a larger role in the grand designs of this rebuild. The way the Orioles provide him with that role is still uncertain. And yet, I for one cannot wait to see him continue to play his part in propelling this team to higher and higher heights.