All Anthony Santander remembers is that he was a little sad.

It was the morning of Mother’s Day — May 13, 2018 — and having reached the 90 days of major league time required to fulfill the roster obligations that came with him as a Rule 5 draft pick, the Orioles optioned him to the minors.

He doesn’t remember whether he sat through the customary send-down meeting with the manager or general manager (Buck Showalter and Dan Duquette at the time.) He was surprised to go to Double-A Bowie instead of Triple-A Norfolk, but was undeterred.

Six years later, Santander is thriving. And six years is longer than many major league baseball careers last. That Santander’s began as it did, with 90 overmatched days over two big league seasons, is a testament to how far one of the foundational pieces of the Orioles lineup has come.

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“The good thing is, I didn’t give up,” he told me.

Baseball’s Rule 5 draft is a means to prevent teams from stockpiling talented young players. Once players attain a certain amount of minor league experience, clubs must add them to their 40-man rosters or risk losing them through the Rule 5 draft. Santander had hit 20 home runs at age 21 in High-A for Cleveland but had a shoulder injury entering the 2016 Rule 5 draft, so was left exposed and selected by the Orioles despite his lack of high-minors experience.

He rehabbed that and a forearm injury for most of 2017 but made his major league debut on Aug. 18 of that year. Teams must keep Rule 5 picks on their roster the entire season following the draft or be forced to offer them back to their old club, but in the case of an injured player, they must accumulate 90 consecutive days in the majors over two seasons.

He had a .625 OPS in 2017, and given the Orioles were gearing up for one last (ultimately ill-fated) attempt at contention in 2018, the organization was, well, divided as to whether Santander should fulfill the remainder of that Rule 5 obligation in 2018.

As such, it became clear to those around the team that once he hit that 90th day, Santander was going to the minors. That happened on May 13. Considering he was carrying a .547 OPS, this was no great baseball injustice.

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Santander describes himself at that point succinctly.

“Inexperienced, you know? ... I didn’t have experience in the big leagues. I knew the talent was there, because as a professional athlete, you always believe in yourself. You know what you’ve got in there. But at the time, I didn’t have any experience at all,” he said.

Showalter, at the time, was to the point.

“Let’s face it, there’s two or three reasons why he was here,” Showalter said. “He’s a Rule 5 guy.”

Things didn’t get much better when Santander went to the minors. Entering that season, he’d gone from a swing where he was crouched low and held his hands high like his idol, All-Star slugger Victor Martinez, to something a bit more upright. He admits now this was a mistake, and it took him until that winter, deep in the Venezuelan Winter League calendar, to rediscover his old swing.

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Baltimore Orioles outfielder Anthony Santander watches from the dugout at Camden Yards. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

He eventually did. After beginning 2019 back at Norfolk for a developmental reset — which many of the team’s top prospects did when Mike Elias and the new front office took over the previous winter — Santander was up for good by the end of May.

No one has played more for the Orioles since. From the start of 2019, he’s made a team-high 2,471 plate appearances (entering Monday’s game). During that time, he’s swatted 117 home runs with a .776 OPS. He’s been an above-average offensive performer in three of four seasons, and is on track to be one again in 2024. He’s set to reach free agency after this season, and through his consistency on the field and improvement defensively, could be set up for a well-earned raise and long-term security.

Six years ago, none of it looked possible, at least from the outside. The front office had enough conviction to keep him on the roster and thus in the organization, but there was little evidence on the field at the major league level that such a decision would pay off.

Santander, though, wouldn’t take the opportunity to tell his younger self that if he could go back to that morning he was sent down six years ago.

“I don’t know, because I’m a strong guy,” he said. “I’ve got a strong mindset. I really understand process and I understand the business side. At the time when I got sent down, I knew what I had to work on to try and get myself back to the big leagues, and I did that, thank God. But honestly, I wouldn’t say nothing to that young man.”

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He might have been one of a handful with that perspective this time six years ago. The Orioles now and since have been much better for it.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the date of Anthony Santander’s major league debut, and time frame over which he has led the Orioles in plate appearances.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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