Anthony Santander hails from Margarita, Venezuela. He began playing baseball at the age of four and has been playing professional baseball since the age of 16. Now at 21, his current season is shaping up as the high water mark for his personal performance.
“Growing up in Venezuela, I played basketball, volleyball and baseball,” said Santander. “When I was 14 I was told I could play [baseball] professionally, so I started to take it more seriously.”
After playing in the Arizona League his first year in the United States, he moved up to Low-A Lake County, but suffered an elbow injury in 2013 that curtailed his season, and a strain of the same elbow curtailed his playing time again in 2014.
He came back in the middle of the 2015 season, first for a few games at Short-season Mahoning Valley, where he earned player of the week honors. He was then promoted to Lake County where he finished out his season, reaching 248 at bats and producing ten home runs and 42 RBI – solid numbers to finish out the season and to show the organization he was healthy and could be productive.
“I’m very happy right now about my elbow,” said Santander when asked about how his elbow is doing now. “It’s been a really hard road for me to be able to play again for a full season, but I’m happy with the way this season is going.”
This is his second year working with hitting coach Larry Day, who has high praise for Santander’s work ethic and approach to hitting.
“He had his best year last year with 13 home runs and hitting at a .290 clip,” said Day. “We are just trying to build on that. He is very advanced from a mechanics standpoint and, a physical standpoint, he looks like a Big Leaguer.”
He has played in 72 games this season, matching his season high of 72 from last year. He ranks second in the Carolina League in RBI (53) behind only teammate Bobby Bradley. He also has nine home runs and 126 total bases this season, placing him among the league leaders in both of those categories.
His power was a factor in several games prior to the mid-season All-Star break. He nearly doubled his home run total and helped the Hillcats to the first half Northern Division title in the Carolina League.
His hitting was on display in a mid-June doubleheader against the Carolina Mudcats. He has held down the number three spot in the Hillcats batting order for most of the season, early on as the designated hitter, but getting more playing time in left field when Mike Papi was promoted to AA Akron.
In the first game he followed a home run by Taylor Murphy with one of his own to reach six home runs on the season. He would go 3-for-3, scoring two runs in a 7-3 Hillcats victory. In the nightcap, he would go 1-for-3 and score another run. Santander then hit two more long balls on the road in Frederick to reach his current total of eight.
“He’s got some juice in his bat from both sides of the plate,” said Hillcats manager Mark Budzinski. “He does some damage RBI-wise. He has a good plan in the box knowing what he wants to do, he’s advanced in that aspect of his game. It’s just a matter of staying consistent and executing.”
He executed well in late May against Salem, a game that would start a strong month of June leading into the All-Star break.
The Memorial Day festivities would begin with Greg Allen leading off the game with a home run to left field. Salem would tie the game in the seventh inning, setting up Santander in the bottom of the tenth.
With the Hillcats down to one out for Salem to close out the tenth inning and keep the game going Mark Mathias singled. With Mathias on first, Salem pitcher Jamie Callahan had to pitch to Santander.
Santander smacked a line drive down the right field line when Callahan hung a breaking ball that he could get around on. A cheer went up from the crowd of 2,087, soon followed by a groan, when home plate umpire Chris Marco ruled it foul. He was, perhaps, the only person in attendance at Calvin Falwell Field who thought the rocket off Santander’s bat was to the right side of the foul pole.
Two pitches later Santander would render the debate moot. He crushed the Callahan offering over the right field wall for an uncontested two-run home run and a Hillcats victory. The team mobbed Santander, who was soon to get a Gatorade shower on the field.
“I made some adjustments and got the results I wanted,” said Santander about ending the Hillcats Memorial Day in triumph.
At 6’2” 190 lb., he is a natural right-hander. When he comes to the dish he is a switch-hitter, with most of his power coming as a lefty. Seven of his nine home runs this year are against right-handed pitching.
“When I started training as a professional I was a pitcher,” shared Santander. “Then I became an outfielder, and needed to find another tool so I would get noticed. At 15, I started hitting left-handed and have been a switch-hitter ever since.”
Both hitting coach Day and manager Budzinski see a bright future ahead for Santander.
“We compare him from the left side to Victor Martinez, and from the right side to Miguel Cabrera as far as who we get him to emulate,” said Day.
The results of this plan are beginning to appear in his stats line. In addition to his already mentioned home run and RBI totals, he has elevated his batting average to .273, has eight stolen bases and has 24 walks and 72 strikeouts.
“We see him as a potential big league bat,” says Budzinski about Santander’s future in the Cleveland organization.
With the confidence of the organization behind him, Santander just has to put in the time and produce the numbers to advance up the organizational ladder and get a chance to play in the Major Leagues.
Photo: Lathan Goumas/The News and Advance