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Orioles prospect season in review: Gunnar Henderson

When the Orioles paid overslot money for Henderson in the 2019 draft, they got a potential star at shortstop.

San Diego Padres v Baltimore Orioles
Orioles 2nd round pick Gunnar Henderson acknowledges the fans at Camden Yards on June 26, 2019.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Gunnar Henderson is a name that dedicated Orioles fans have come to know well over the past couple of years. As a toolsy middle infielder, he’s the kind of player that GM Mike Elias has diligently stocked the farm system with since he took over Baltimore’s baseball operations.

As the Orioles’ 2nd round draft pick (42nd overall) in 2019 out of high school in Selma, Alabama, Henderson’s got first round talent. But a lot of teams were apprehensive to draft him because of his intention to play college ball.

Originally taken as a shortstop, Henderson is a young, athletic, left-handed hitter who is projected to have above average power at the major league level. Checking in at 6’ 2” and 210 lbs., he’s still got some room to fill out.

To sign Henderson, Elias and company used a tactic that has become commonplace for their regime, which is to offer overslot money. The Orioles gave Henderson a signing bonus of $2.3 million — much more than the $1.77 million slot value for the 42nd pick — to back out of his college commitment to Auburn.

While Henderson has the defensive chops to stick at shortstop, there’s a chance he will outgrow the position and slide over to third base in the future. Not to mention, there are several other talented young shortstops in the Orioles system right now, like 2020 1st round draftee Jordan Westburg.

The Birds have already made a conscious effort to get Henderson experience at third. While he’s played the majority of his minor league games at shortstop, nearly a third of his playing time this past season came at third base.

Kicking off his professional career with the Gulf Coast League Orioles in 2019, Henderson hit .259/.331/.370 with two doubles, one triple, one home run, 11 walks, and 28 strikeouts. Then the 2020 season happened.

Despite the challenges of having no minor league baseball that year, Henderson opened eyes at the Orioles Alternate Training Site in Bowie. Director of Player Development Matt Blood had a sterling report of Henderson:

“He was the most exciting guy in [Alternate] camp for me...The guy worked really hard and he showed five tools. He’s facing Double-A, Triple-A, 4-A pitchers for the first time in his life. It was a challenge for him, and he caught up. By week three, he had caught up to the competition he was facing and he was one of the best guys there. The older guys really took notice and were impressed by him and were also helping him. And he played a nice shortstop, too.”

The young shortstop/third baseman played for three different Orioles affiliates in 2021 when minor league baseball returned. He got a little taste of Double-A at the end of the year too, but only hit .200/.294/.27 in 15 at-bats.

Most of Henderson’s 2021 success came at the beginning of the year with Delmarva, where he played 35 games and accumulated 141 at-bats. He produced a .312/.369/.574/ triple slash line with 11 doubles, one triple, eight home runs, 14 walks, 46 strikeouts, five steals, and a .944 OPS.

In late June, Henderson was promoted to Aberdeen, where he spent the bulk of the year. A lot of his offensive numbers went down as he struggled with the transition from low to high Single-A. Over the course of 65 games (243 ABs) with the IronBirds, the 20-year-old hit .230/.343/.432.

The silver lining in that slash line is Henderson’s OBP, which was more than 100 points higher than his batting average. He showed strong plate discipline, especially for such a young player, by collecting 40 walks versus 87 strikeouts. Henderson also had 16 doubles, three triples, nine home runs, and 11 stolen bases while playing for Aberdeen.

MLB Pipeline has Henderson ranked as the Orioles 4th best prospect, mentioning Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager as a comp. That’s quite promising for O’s fans, considering the Dodger shortstop’s career batting line of .297/.367/.504 over the course of seven years in the bigs. Seager has also averaged 15 home runs per season over that time, which Henderson should be able to surpass if his power reaches its full potential.

If everything works out for Gunnar, his future role for the Orioles is everyday shortstop or third baseman. And with his hitting tools, he should be a middle of the order bat. At a very young age, Henderson is already a well-rounded player. And while his speed may not be elite, he is surprisingly fast for his size. He had four triples and 16 stolen bases in 100 games this past season between Delmarva and Aberdeen.

Henderson’s climb through the minors is impressive, especially considering he didn’t play college ball. Plus, he’s not even legal drinking age yet! That milestone won’t come until June of next year.

So when are we likely to see Henderson in Baltimore, you ask? The general consensus seems to be sometime in 2023. If he is able to figure out Double-A pitching in 2022, he could potentially move that timeline forward and pop up in Baltimore sometime late next year. But again, the Orioles will likely go the conservative route and promote him in 2023 or beyond. We’ll just have to be patient.

Previous 2021 Orioles prospect reviews: Ryan McKenna, Alexander Wells, Brnovich/Peek/Pinto, Diaz/Bannon, Tyler Nevin, Vavra/Ortiz/Servideo, Zac Lowther, DL Hall/Rom, Hernandez/Basallo, Jahmai Jones, Hudson Haskin, Bradish/Smith, Hernaiz/Mayo, Cowser/Norby, Adam Hall, Kyle Stowers, Mike Baumann, Jordan Westburg

Monday: Grayson Rodriguez