Making the playoffs, winning the division and effectively raising the bar on how the Orioles will be judged means, sometimes, even the most well-worn conversations need a new perspective.
Case in point: Anthony Santander is in his fourth and final year of salary arbitration, with an eight-figure salary projected. Just like the last three years, his switch-hitting power potential is perceived to be attractive to other teams. The Orioles, an organization that for years viewed the approach of free agency as an impetus to move a player for future value, have a unique case to consider.
This time, there are more factors than just his high salary and ever-nearing free agency, such as the team’s competitive position. And that means the bar for a return on one year of Santander — considering how large a role he can have in helping the Orioles get back to the playoffs in his walk year — is, to me, going to be prohibitively high.
In that case, it’s probably simplest for the Orioles to keep him.
Given what we know about the Orioles’ value-based decision-making and adherence to their own statistical model, this certainly doesn’t feel like the move they would make.
The Orioles over the course of the last few years have moved on from countless players who they feel were not going to perform at the level the arbitration system would require them to be paid — think Hanser Alberto and Renato Núñez — or traded them so those salaries would be another team’s responsibility. Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Villar were early victims of that.
Many of those cases were for teams that weren’t going anywhere. The 2024 Orioles have the difficult task of repeating a playoff bid in a tough division, and paying Santander around $12.7 million, according to estimates from MLBTradeRumors.com, for what FanGraphs has projected as a 2.6 wins-above-replacement season. If 1 WAR is worth around $8 million in free agency, as has long been held, the Orioles still come out ahead.
And the nearly 70 extra-base hits Santander provides in the heart of the lineup are worth real wins, too. The on-base types at the top of the Orioles’ lineup give Santander ample opportunities to come to the plate with runners on base, and he was far better in those situations (.895 OPS) this year than with the bases empty (.715).
It’s true that the Orioles have power hitters Heston Kjerstad and Coby Mayo primed to join the lineup at some point next year, and they could theoretically replace that production in short order. But those are two players who hit from the left and right sides, respectively, who would be asked to do what Santander does with one roster spot as a switch hitter. There are ways to get creative and actually replace Santander in 2024 with some combination of them, but the viability of that will probably be determined not on the rookies’ ability to do so but how the rest of the Orioles’ position player group is assembled.
There’s also the matter of the return. It was pretty unpopular externally when the Orioles dealt pending free agent Trey Mancini and All-Star closer Jorge López at the 2022 trade deadline, given the team had fought back into playoff contention. To the Orioles, it was simply good business, and the fact that they received an All-Star reliever in Yennier Canó and three of their top pitching prospects in Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott and Seth Johnson is a bonus.
At some point — quite possibly this exact one the Orioles are in — trading for other clubs’ prospects with hoppy fastballs and attractive weapons with the idea that they might be contributors down the line simply stops feeling appropriate. One year of Santander isn’t likely to yield much on the major league side. Any team with the aspirations for a rental corner outfielder making that much money probably doesn’t want to be weakening other areas of its roster to do so. And reports on this year’s Orioles pitching draft class, as well as the countless breakout names on the mound throughout their minors this year, create a pretty crowded pitching-depth picture.
Is adding a few more names to that list for the sake of saving a few million dollars and clearing space for prospects to play worth it? Maybe in the vacuum of numbers within the Orioles’ projection system, but it’s hard to feel like it would be on the field.
There are other potential subtractions from the arbitration-eligible players on the major league roster they could make that prove to be accretive and make the team better in 2024 and beyond, so this isn’t a broad condemnation of that path. Roster churn is something teams the Orioles model themselves after, such as the Rays and Guardians, endure every winter.
Rare, however, are the instances when a team subtracts from the middle of a playoff lineup to achieve the kind of roster sustainability it seeks. Santander has been at the heart of the Orioles’ lineup for years, and he remained there despite being at the heart of these discussions for the last few offseasons.
Players don’t get expensive unless they’re good, and Santander falls into that category. So the bar should be high if the Orioles are looking to move on this winter.