Santander's journey from Rule 5 pick leads him to threshold of free agency

SARASOTA, Fla. – It’s the quieter times or moments off the field that can make Anthony Santander imagine his baseball life away from Baltimore. Never when he’s working out with teammates or joking with them in the clubhouse. Never when he puts on the uniform.

The games, whether real or in exhibition form, have his full attention. But he knows that free agency beckons. The 2024 season could be his last with the Orioles, who used the 18th pick in the 2016 Rule 5 draft on a 22-year-old Class A outfielder with a surgically repaired right shoulder.

The last selection in the major league phase, with the other eligible teams passing on him.

Dan Duquette, the former executive vice president, said the Orioles didn’t have access to all of the medicals but were comfortable with the idea of giving Santander a shot based on talent. The power from both sides of the plate and run producing tools sold them.

Duquette wasn’t retained after the 2018 season, the year that Santander finally shed his Rule 5 status by spending the requisite number of days on the active roster. He fell short by 44 in 2017 due to his surgery, his debut delayed until Aug. 18 against the Angels at Camden Yards.

The years seem to fly by now, with Santander an established veteran and former Gold Glove finalist who’s become one of the game’s most prolific switch-hitters. And a player who could command lots of attention and bigger dollars on the market.

“Who would have thought I was gonna be here as a Rule 5? That’s crazy,” he said yesterday morning.

“Of course, there’s always a moment to think about that. When we’re in the house with family, friends. But that’s something where, when we come to the field we don’t think about it, you know? I’m so happy and proud. Hopefully, I can stay here. Who knows?

“I would like to stay here, but this is a business, and we have to get ready to compete every single day. We’ll see what happens later.”

Santander’s journey hasn’t run out of mileage.

“With discipline and a great work ethic, I think I was able to go through that,” he said. “It’s not easy coming here as a Rule 5, shoulder surgery, but I have to thank the organization for giving me the opportunity, and I stuck around with a new GM and a new manager. They saw something with me and then I took that opportunity and made it work with hard work. I’m still here, thank God, and hopefully I can continue a lot longer career.”

Teammates want it to keep rolling along with the Orioles.

“He’s our bat in the middle of the lineup, he’s our three-hole hitter, no matter what,” said left fielder Austin Hays. “We would move guys around to make sure he’s in the lineup every single day. He’s a guy who has to be in there and our team doesn’t do what it did last year without him being in the heart of the lineup. He’s one of the best hitters in the game, one of the best power hitters in the game, and what he can do equally from both sides of the plate is something that is hard to find in this game.”

“He’s obviously a great player and I really hope we can keep him around for as long as possible,” said first baseman Ryan Mountcastle. “A great teammate. Just a great guy in general. Love playing with him. He’s a good leader and really has everybody’s back in the clubhouse.”

Asked what Santander means to the Orioles, reliever Keegan Akin replied, “I would say a lot.”

“He’s definitely been one of the anchors of this core,” Akin said. “He’s been through it all, really. He was kind of the start of it. Seen some pretty bad days in his career, honestly, and it was part of it, and he’s battled through it and came out on top. I would say he’s definitely one of the better players in the league right now.

“Coming in, it was tough for him. I think so. I think it was just adapting over here and making the chance, and he’s definitely been the anchor of this team. Great leader, even if there’s a language issue that’s been a barrier. He’s been awesome, it’s been fun to have him, and he definitely keeps things interesting, for sure.”

Other Orioles landed in the organization before Santander, who turns 30 in October. Means was an 11th-round draft pick in 2014, Mountcastle the 36th overall selection in 2015, Cedric Mullins a 13th-rounder in 2015. Akin was chosen in the second round in 2016 and Hays in the third.

Santander beat all of them to the majors as a Rule 5, making him the longest tenured Oriole by that calculation. Hays arrived in September 2017, one month after Santander.

The years again taking flight.

“Oh my God, yeah. I say that every year,” said Akin, who reached the majors in 2020.

“I forget what year I get drafted in, and it’s crazy to think it’s going on eight years of pro ball. I feel like yesterday we just got him. I remember sitting in our spring training complex and we were like, ‘Who? Who did we get?’ And he showed up, and now, here we are eight years later, and he’s been very good for us.”

Santander got the attention of the Orioles’ front office by batting .290/.368/.494 with 42 doubles, 20 home runs and 95 RBIs in 128 games with Lynchburg in the Indians’ system.

Making that jump from Class A to the majors “was tough, man,” Santander said.

“If you see my numbers, it was my first year that I played a full season, because the other four I was hurt. I had elbow surgery, and I pulled my hammy in spring training in 2015. But I’m blessed from that. I think I showed a good work ethic. That’s one of the reasons why I stuck around, waiting for the opportunity, and they gave me the opportunity and I took advantage of that.”

Duquette selected another outfielder, Aneury Tavarez, a speedster from the Red Sox system, at No. 12 in the first round. Santander slipped to the second round, but he was the keeper.

“Anthony showed that he could hit and hit with power from both sides of the plate in the Carolina League,” Duquette said yesterday. “He also demonstrated that he could play right field and left field and that he had a good throwing arm. Despite his age and inexperience, we decided to draft him because of his unique skill set. I’m glad we did because I know Orioles fans enjoy watching Anthony play ball.”

Manager Brandon Hyde, in his first season with the Orioles, used Santander in 93 games in 2019. The pandemic shortened the 2020 season to 60 games and Santander was chosen Most Valuable Oriole by the media despite going on the injured list in early September with a strained oblique.

Santander began to emerge as an impact slugger the following year, finishing with 24 doubles and 18 home runs in 110 games but again dealing with a myriad of injuries – to his ankle, hamstring and knee, the latter forcing him to be shut down in late September.

The breakout came in 2022, when Santander improved his plate discipline and learned how to walk. His career was off and running, with the native of Venezuela batting collecting 24 doubles, hitting 33 homers and driving in 89 runs. He led the club last season with 41 doubles and 95 RBIs, tied Gunnar Henderson for the home run lead with 28 and ranked second to the rookie with a .472 slugging percentage.

Santander’s wRC+ of 119 was 19 percent better than the league average hitter.

Hyde is a Santander fan across the board.

“Everything,” he said. “Really for a few years now, a middle-of-the-order presence, how he’s turned himself into one of the better hitters in the American League from a run-producer standpoint, to what he brings with his power, his ability to hit from both sides. Really hits well from both sides, so it’s tough to match up against him from the opposing side. But also, he’s turned into one of the veterans on the team. He’s a really good leader by example. He prepares as well as anybody. He’s really turned himself into a real professional, so it’s great to the young guys to see how he goes about his business every day.”

“Tony’s grown a lot over the years,” Hays said. “Just how he prepares, how he takes care of his body, video, using the numbers to build a really solid plan day in and day out against whoever the pitcher’s going to be that day. And that’s something he’s really been open with with a lot of guys on the team. How you need to prepare to perform at the highest level in this league. And he really does have a veteran presence in the clubhouse now, where he is a very good leader for all the guys, especially for a lot of the Latin guys on the team, too.”

MLB Network revealed its Top 100 players earlier this month and Santander was a surprise inclusion at No. 86.

A surprise because he didn’t make the list last year and tends to get overlooked, especially on a team with so many young stars. He’s never been an All-Star or received votes for Most Valuable Player in the American League.

“It’s crazy to me that you can have a switch-hitter with that much power and have that many extra-base hits, and it just seems like he doesn’t really get talked about that much,” Hays said. “It was good to see him in the Top 100 players in MLB. It’s good that he’s on that list because he definitely deserves to be. It’s good that he was getting some attention there.”

“He’s put up, what, 33 homers two years ago and close to 30 last year?” Mountcastle said. “Unbelievable player, bunch of power. He always has a good at-bat. I think he’s a little bit underrated and hopefully he can keep showing them why.”

Santander’s 70 extra-base hits last year tied for second-most by an Orioles switch hitter with Eddie Murray in 1980 and Brian Roberts in 2005. Santander also became the first Orioles player with at least 40 doubles in a season since Manny Machado in 2016, and the first switch-hitter with 95 RBIs since Bobby Bonilla had 116 in 1996.

His 61 home runs over the last two years lead major league switch-hitters, and he’s the first with 85 or more RBIs in back-to-back seasons since Murray in 1982-85.

“He’s gone about it in such a low-key way,” said starter John Means. “He was up for a Gold Glove a few years ago. It is kind of interesting how that works, but every time he comes up to the plate you know something cool is about to happen. I think it’ll come.

“I think going into free agency, people start to realize how good of a player he is and how much he’s sought after.”

Santander avoided arbitration by agreeing to an $11.7 million contract. The Orioles have plenty of room on the books for an extension that Santander covets with incoming owner David Rubenstein, but also a group of good young outfielders who rate among their top prospects, as well as players such as Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson and Jackson Holliday who at least spark internal discussions about long-term deals. Santander again could get lost among them.

He was a trade chip during the rebuild. Now, he’s an essential part of their lineup and clubhouse, for however long he’s here.

“He brings confidence every day, he brings energy every day,” Means said. “His routine is as good as anybody’s. He’s kind of the heartbeat of this team and has been for the last good amount of years.”


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