Santander's 'main goal is to be healthy'

February 23rd, 2021

It was a busy winter for Orioles right fielder , who spent it in Miami, rehabbing a serious left oblique injury, blocking out trade rumors and challenging the organization in arbitration. Stressful? Hardly. The affable slugger was all smiles Tuesday, when he spoke publicly for the first time since losing his arbitration hearing earlier this month.

"No, it was not difficult," Santander said, through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. "This is a business. They were trying to do their job and my agent was trying to do his job. That didn't take away from my focus of being ready for Spring Training and in good shape."

The rumors, too, "didn't take take away from the time I spent concentrating on my body and skills," Santander said. On that front, Santander's work was sizable. He said it took 10 weeks to fully recover from the left oblique strain that ended his 2020 season prematurely, six to rest and four for rehab.

Once back training, his focus shifted to improving flexibility, with an eye toward navigating the 162-game 2021 season injury free.

"My main goal is to be healthy," Santander said. "If I'm healthy, I'm able to help my team win as many games as possible, and that's what I want to do."

It's a common theme in Orioles camp, and in the outfield especially, where Santander, Austin Hays and DJ Stewart (as well as several upper-level prospects) have seen their development stalled at times by various maladies. Before breaking out with 11 homers and a .890 OPS last season, Santander was repeatedly plagued by shoulder issues, in 2016, '17 and '19. The oblique strain ended his '20 campaign after just 37 games, during which he compiled 32 RBIs, 88 total bases and a .575 slugging percentage. Santander was also an American League Gold Glove Award finalist after improving defensively in right field by several metrics.

Asked what he hoped to improve on this season, Santander cited plate discipline as an area of focus. Santander's power numbers were good enough in such a small sample size last year that they overshadowed his limits in this department: He's posted just a .302 OBP and 5 percent walk rate in 130 games over the past two seasons. Playing all (or close to all) 162 in 2021 would undoubtably expose those holes more often.

"That's something we talk with Tony about," O's manager Brandon Hyde said. "I think he made big strides last year. My first year here, he had a lot of chases below the zone on offspeed [pitches]. He did a better job of laying off those [in '20] in two-strike counts. That's the next step for Tony, to shrink the strike zone a little bit, because he does so much damage on strikes and hits the ball so hard. If he can continue to improve his swing decisions, he can have a really good year and career."

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Call to the bullpen
Of all the changes to enter 's life during the past year, the cutest came in fur: An F2 mini Goldendoodle puppy named Otus the hard-throwing lefty and his girlfriend acquired this offseason. The cuddly companion runs opposite to the image Scott inspired on the mound in 2020, when he harnessed his hellacious stuff to emerge as a dominant late-inning option.

"The puppy is awesome," Scott said. "It's definitely a handful, but I love every minute of it."

Now at the onset of camp, Scott appears primed for high-leverage opportunities out of the Orioles' bullpen this season, potentially in the ninth inning. He also might be the game's most low-key breakout relief candidate, given how his 2020 success came in a small sample size, and in a setup role for a team generally playing out of the spotlight.

That said, Scott was dominant, despite still being a less-than-elite strike thrower. And the improvement from the year before was plain to see:

2019: 26 1/3 IP, 4.78 ERA, 1.785 WHIP, 30.3% K rate, 15.6% BB rate
2020: 20 2/3 IP, 1.31 ERA, 1.065 WHIP 26.7% K rate, 11.6% BB rate

Under the hood, Scott's improvement looked real. Here is how he ranked in several important categories in 2020, per Statcast:

Exit velocity against: 93rd percentile
Barrel percentage: 85th percentile
Whiff percentage: 91st percentile
Hard hit percentage: 87th percentile
Fastball velocity: 91st percentile
Fastball spin: 98th percentile

"There was a different look in his eye," Hyde said. "He was a guy when I first got here who had an amazing arm with really good stuff. Last spring, simplifying his delivery was a big part of making things easier for him. That gave him confidence and he took it right into the season. He has made huge strides since the day I got here, and I think he has huge upside."

From the trainer's room
Hyde reported that , who had right hamate surgery in late January, is currently rehabbing at the Orioles facility in Twin Lakes and would begin a hitting progression in "one or two weeks." Martin hit .208 with .581 OPS as a rookie in 2019, then missed '20 with a broken right wrist. A speedy recovery could put Martin in the mix for a utility role; if not, he would likely begin the season on the injured list or at Triple-A Norfolk.