The Orioles have been getting right fielder Anthony Santander some practice at first base and could play him on the infield at least occasionally down the stretch, manager Brandon Hyde told reporters this weekend (link via MASNsports.com’s Roch Kubtako). That shift could be accompanied by other changes in the infield, which began yesterday with Rougned Odor moving to third base in deference to 25-year-old Terrin Vavra, who received his first big league start at second base.
Santander, 27, has never played a Major League game at first base but did get some minor league work there several years ago. He generally rates as an above-average defender in right field, per both Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average, although his ratings have slipped this season. With several young outfielders rising through the system including MLB-ready Kyle Stowers and fast-rising 2021 top pick Colton Cowser, it’s of extra note that Santander could reacclimate to another spot on the diamond. Austin Hays and Cedric Mullins are generally locked into outfield spots, so shifting Santander around certainly makes some sense.
Of course, even moderately enhancing Santander’s defensive versatility will also potentially make him a bit more appealing on the offseason trade market. The switch-hitting Santander drew some interest this summer, as he’s done for the past couple seasons, but the O’s hung onto him and for now can continue to enjoy his .255/.334/.452 output. Santander is on pace to set new career-highs in plate appearances, home runs and doubles this season, provided he remains healthy down the stretch. He’s also trimmed his strikeout rate from 23.1% last season to 18.6% this season and upped his walk rate from 5.3% to a career-best 8.2%.
Santander is earning $3.15MM this season and remains under club control through the 2024 campaign via arbitration. He’s already been through that process twice as a Super Two player and will be due another pair of raises before hitting the open market just after his 30th birthday in the 2024-25 offseason.
As for the move of Odor to the hot corner, it’s only sensible to get as long a look as Vavra as possible down the stretch in 2022. Second base is Vavra’s primary (and best) position, and after he hit .312/.425/.444 through 229 minor league plate appearances this season (mostly in Triple-A), he appears ready for a look in the big leagues. However, the O’s also have fellow infield prospect Jordan Westburg knocking on the door of the big leagues, if not late in 2022 then likely early in the 2023 season. Westburg, who landed 98th on Baseball America’s latest top 100 rankings, has posted a combined .255/.332/.470 slash between Double-A and Triple-A this season. He’s seen his walk rate cut in half jumping from Double-A to Triple-A and perhaps has some strikeout issues to sort through (26.1% this year), but given his general proximity to the big leagues, taking a proactive look at Vavra makes sense.
It seems fair to question just how much longer the veteran Odor will factor into the plans at all, given that the longtime Rangers infielder has posted just a .193/.257/.365 batting line in 331 plate appearances this year. The lefty-swinging Odor has actually posted worse results against right-handers than against southpaws and turned in below-average defensive grades at second base (-5 DRS, -2.9 UZR, -5 OAA).
From a broader perspective, veterans of the Odor ilk will have a more difficult time finding opportunity in Baltimore at all before too long. Despite graduating former No. 1 overall prospect Adley Rutschman to the Major League roster, the O’s still have baseball’s best all-round farm system, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel opined in today’s updated rankings of the game’s 30 minor league systems. Some of that is due to another No. 1 overall pick being added to the system this season, but it’s also due largely to the rise of shortstop prospect Gunnar Henderson, whom Baseball America tabs as its new No. 1 overall farmhand in another just-released set of rankings.
Henderson, like Westburg, has split the 2022 season between Double-A and Triple-A, slashing at a combined .304/.429/.556 clip with 17 home runs, 20 doubles, six triples, 16 steals (in 19 tries), a huge 16.7% walk rate and a 20.8% strikeout rate. With 205 Triple-A plate appearances already under his belt, it’s at least feasible that he could also be an option late in the season — and, if not, then certainly early in 2023. However things pan out in the short-term, the looming presence of Henderson, Westburg, Vavra and others figures to directly impact Odor, Ramon Urias, Jorge Mateo and other infield options before too long.