Anthony Santander has played 591 games with the Orioles, more than anyone else currently on the club. He has hit 61 home runs and driven in 184 runs the last two seasons, more than anyone else. He has an accumulated 5.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) across 2022 and 2023 and received Most Valuable Oriole votes the last two years.
Santander even won the MVO in the truncated 2020 season when he played only 37 games because of an oblique injury, and he was a finalist for the Gold Glove in right field.
He has even made himself into a competent first baseman, playing seven games there in 2023.
“Tony Taters” is an extremely popular player with Oriole fans and is an upbeat presence in the clubhouse. He’s done an admirable job becoming fluent in English and is an entertaining interview.
Santander will be entering his final season before free agency and, according to MLBTradeRumors.com, could earn $12.7 million in arbitration for 2024, a hefty increase from $7.4 million this season.
That leaves the Orioles with a decision to make about the 29-year-old switch-hitter.
Should they extend him?
The Orioles have two outfielders they’d like to find playing time for who briefly played with the team in 2023: Colton Cowser and Heston Kjerstad, their number one draft picks in 2021 and 2020.
Aaron Hicks, who was a useful addition when he joined the club as a free agent in late May after Cedric Mullins went on the injured list for the first time, is a free agent and is not expected to return.
That could open a spot for Cowser or Kjerstad, both left-handed hitters.
The Orioles also have some other outfielders who were recent high draft choices — Dylan Beavers, Enrique Bradfield Jr. and Jud Fabian, who may be ready in a year or two.
While Kjerstad is a terrific power prospect, drawing comparisons with the fearsome Philadelphia Phillies slugger Kyle Schwarber, he has just 30 major league at-bats. The Orioles placed him on the roster for the American League Division Series, but he never made it past the on-deck circle.
Santander’s power is legitimate and consistent, and while Kjerstad did hit 21 homers, drive in 55 runs and hit .303 with a .904 OPS in 122 games with Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, he’s unproven as a major leaguer, offensively and defensively.
The Orioles haven’t extended a veteran player in the five years of the Mike Elias regime. If they’re going to begin handing out extensions, Gunnar Henderson, who tied with Santander for the club lead in home runs with 28 this year, and Adley Rutschman seem much more logical candidates than Santander.
Should they keep him for another season?
Since the Orioles are now contenders, that adds a degree of difficulty to their decision on Santander.
If this were the 2021 Orioles, Santander would be a sure thing to be traded, but these Orioles are in contention mode, not rebuild mode.
Keeping Santander, even at nearly $13 million, would give them another legitimate power threat.
The Orioles hit 183 home runs, ninth in the American League. Two of their best power hitters, Mullins and Ryan Mountcastle, missed substantial time on the injured list.
A lineup including Henderson, Mullins, Mountcastle, Rutschman, Santander and Austin Hays, all of whom have hit 20 or more home runs in the last three seasons, could be formidable. Adding Kjerstad and a maturing Jordan Westburg, who hit 27 homers and drove in 106 runs at Norfolk and Bowie in 2022, to that mix could make that lineup even more dangerous.
The Orioles didn’t show much power late in the season, hitting only three home runs in the last 10 regular-season games, and three more from Henderson, Hicks and Santander in their playoff loss to Texas.
Assuming the Orioles are a playoff contender in 2024, and they’ll be favored to be one entering the season, they could keep Santander and proffer a qualifying offer, which might exceed $21 million a year from now.
If Santander accepted the offer, which relatively few players do, they could have him for an additional year. If he signed elsewhere, they could receive a draft choice as compensation from the team that signs him.
Should they explore the trade market?
As tantalizing as the power-laden lineup that includes Santander is, so is the possibility of using him in a deal to fortify the Orioles’ starting rotation.
Talk should heat up at next month’s general managers’ meetings in Scottsdale, Arizona, and if a team has a starter with more than a year left before free agency, Santander could be a major component in a deal.
Trading for a starter with two years or more of arbitration eligibility left could be more logical than signing another veteran free agent starter as the Orioles did the last two offseasons with Jordan Lyles and Kyle Gibson.
The Orioles are fortunate that they have such a valuable commodity in Santander, and they’ll carefully explore their options in the coming weeks.