What’s not to like about Tony Taters? A Rule 5 pick by the Orioles in 2016, Anthony Santander has made himself into the team’s everyday right fielder. He mashed 11 home runs in just 37 games during an already-shortened 2020 season (hence his nickname). He finished the year as the Most Valuable Oriole and was nominated as a Gold Glove finalist despite an oblique injury cutting his season even shorter. He even has his own international fan club!

Take a look at the O’s roster, though, and you may like him even more in the short term. Now in Year Three of the team’s rebuild under Mike Elias, the Orioles are starting to graduate a number of interesting players from the minors. While there are some prospects to get excited about — Ryan Mountcastle, Dean Kremer, Keegan Akin and a slew of others who could debut in 2021 — there don’t seem to be many players dripping with star potential. That’s not counting Adley Rutschman, of course, who’s a consensus top-five prospect in all of baseball and No. 2 per MLB.com.

That’s not a knock on any of these players, and there’s no questioning that the O’s farm system is steadily improving. But if the Orioles are going to build a consistent winner, it can’t just be with Rutschman leading the charge, surrounded by a bunch of role players. Most of the help will have to come from the minors, but it would be beneficial if some of the team’s more established players took their games to a new level.

In those 37 games last season, Santander did just that. It’s not wise to put too much stock in his 2019 and 2020 seasons due to sample size considerations, but it’s intriguing to see what he was able to do:

2019: .261/.297/.476, .321 wOBA, 97 wRC+, 4.7 BB%, 21.2 K% (405 PA)
2020: .261/.315/.575, .364 wOBA, 130 wRC+, 6.1 BB%, 15.2 K% (165 PA)

In terms of exit velocity, Santander’s 2020 didn’t top 2019 (89.9 vs. 88.6). But nearly across the board, his batted ball/Statcast numbers were better: barrel percentage (10.2 vs. 7.7), launch angle (24.7 vs. 15.3), sweet-spot percentage (40.6 vs. 31.2), xwOBA (.338 vs. .322) and more. The increase in walks and decrease in strikeouts were also noteworthy, along with Santander’s newfound penchant for hitting the ball in the air (49.6 fly ball percentage).

Santander’s bat wasn’t the only thing that improved in 2020. He rated much better in the outfield last season, according to Defensive Runs Saved, Ultimate Zone Rating and Outs Above Average:

2018: -1 DRS, 0.2 UZR/150, -1 OAA
2019: 0 DRS, -2.7 UZR/150, -3 OAA
2020: 8 DRS, 2.7 UZR/150, 1 OAA

Eight Defensive Runs Saved aside, Santander doesn’t pass the eye test as an elite defensive outfielder. Most likely, he’s somewhere in the average to decent range, and that’s perfectly fine. As long as he’s not doing things like this anymore:

The best-case version of Santander is a slugger who continues to mash while his on-base percentage inches closer to .350 than .300. It helps that he can field his position well enough, but it’s hard to have a huge impact without getting on base and walking more. Just ask Renato Núñez.

It would also be a welcome sign for Santander to finish a season strong. When he came to the O’s in 2016, he was recovering from shoulder surgery and also dealt with an elbow injury in 2017. When he finally showed what he could do in 93 games in 2019, he went into a massive slump down the stretch while battling fatigue and labrum soreness. And then his 2020 was cut short just as things were getting interesting.

It’s a big ask for Santander to both stay on the field and take a leap forward in the OBP department, but it’s far from impossible. At 26, he’s entering his prime, and the tweaks he’s made each season to enhance his game have helped. If John Means can go from the brink of walking away from baseball to becoming the O’s ace, then Santander can turn himself into a 2-3 win player — or better. There are no sure things, but a middle of the order that includes Santander, Trey Mancini and Ryan Mountcastle could be a lot of fun for O’s fans in 2021.

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Matt Kremnitzer

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