Lately, the Orioles farm team is drawing more favorable buzz than it has in years: just this week Baseball America ranked the Orioles a best-ever No. 7 in the league, while Keith Law put them in the 18 slot (it’s better than the 30-out-of-30 ranking he gave them two seasons ago).
Most of that buzz has centered around the five prospects the Orioles have on MLB’s Top 100 list. Their first-round picks in 2019 and 2020, Mssrs. Rutschman and Kjerstad, already rank No. 2 and No. 69. Pitchers Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall clock in at No. 27 and 70, respectively, while big righty bat Ryan Mountcastle is at No. 77, having announced himself with a bang in 2020 with a .333 average and 42 hits in 35 MLB games.
If those names are now established on the charts, the dark horse gaining momentum is 19-year-old Gunnar Henderson. With just a season of pro ball with the Gulf Coast Orioles under his belt (in which he slashed. 259/.331/.370 in 29 games) there’s not been a ton of hard evidence on Henderson. But it seems that’s about to change. As CC’s Tyler Young wrote over the weekend, “Basically every outlet is saying that once scouts get a look at him on the field this year he is going to shoot up these rankings.”
That is plenty exciting. Here is just a sample from this month:
MLB.com’s Jim Callis, Jonathan Mayo, and Mike Rosenbaum: “Henderson was the youngest player at Baltimore’s alternate camp last summer, quickly adjusting and catching up to much more advanced pitching than he’d ever faced previously. He’s a big, strong left-handed hitter and super-athletic, and while the O’s think he can stick at shortstop, he’s also shown he could easily handle a move to third or center field.
MLB Pipeline: “Henderson produces good bat speed from his projectable 6-foot-3 frame, which has elicited comparisons to Corey Seager. There is a little length to his left-handed swing and some hope his approach matures with age, but the power upside is big, potentially plus at the highest level. … He has the potential to jump as much as any Orioles prospect with a big first full season of pro ball.”
MLB’s Joe Trezza: “It’s not difficult to see why Henderson excites the O’s development people. . . . He can flat-out play, with impressive (and improving) raw power for his age and one of the system’s strongest throwing arms. At this point, Henderson might have more upside than any O’s position player prospect not named Adley Rutschman.”
What may be most exciting about Henderson is the immediate, enthusiastic reaction he elicits in people who have watched him play in person. As Adley Rutschman recently explained to Jim Callis, 2020 had “a lot of negatives, but a few positives.” One of those positives was the alternate site in Bowie, where seasoned prospects and younger guys were bunched together and getting hands-on coaching! This was particularly huge for Gunnar Henderson. Not only did he get to “compete in BP every day” with DJ Stewart, he saw big-league breaking balls, splits and changeups from the likes of Dean Kremer (“He’s tough because he can really bear down and put it where he wants it,” he says of Kremer), DL Hall (“You always have to be on your ‘A’ game with him—98 from the left side bearing in makes it a lot tougher”) and Grayson Rodriguez (“[His] best pitch right now is that changeup, but he’s always 97-99 with the fastball”).
According to coaches who saw Henderson play in the controlled environments of the alternate site and fall league, the youngster handled everything thrown at him.
Orioles minor league pitching coach Justin Ramsey praised Henderson’s gutsiness: He was “by far the youngest guy that was at our alternate site and with the least amount of experience. And he was facing big league arms, guys that were ready to go up, and some of our best arms. But after that month, he didn’t quit, he battled and he got better. He became a tough out. Didn’t matter if you were a big-league arm or not.”
Orioles director of player development Matt Blood raved and raved: “He was the most exciting guy in camp for me. The guy worked really hard and he showed five tools. … He’s one of our better athletes in the system. … [H]e can play everywhere. He can legitimately play six positions on the field if you wanted him to. Or he could play seven positions, really.”
Eventually. Orioles manager Brandon Hyde got to check out Henderson, too. “That was fun to watch him,” Hyde told 105.7 The Fan. “We have high hopes for Gunnar. I was really impressed with what I saw. The physicality of him. Looks like Corey Seager-type shoulders, maybe a little bit thicker. And really athletic and young. The strides that I’ve seen him make from when he got drafted to now is impressive.”
The ceiling sounds high, though it’s important to remember that there’s not much hard evidence for a fan to rely on just yet. The limited footage we have of him in the cage suggests that he has made his swing more compact, and really is driving the baseball. Henderson’s interviews convey the impression of a thoughtful and well-spoken guy. (While mic’d up in fall league, he provided some of the most delightful player banter since Adam Jones attended the Home Run Derby in 2013.) And although he has just one season of pro ball under his belt, he’s excelled at multiple levels so far even as the youngest player around (GCL, Bowie, and the fall instructional league).
2021 will be a big year for Henderson as he makes a push into Baseball America’s Top 100, and hopefully the upper echelons of the minors soon after that. We may catch a glimpse of Henderson in spring training, but as Jon Meoli writes, don’t be surprised if some of the flashier young prospects get invites only after the beginning of full-squad workouts. “The exposure to the major league side will be done gradually.”
On the other hand, in 2020 Orioles fans started to notice recent call-ups from Bowie hit the ground running once they got to the majors: Ryan Mountcastle, Dean Kremer, and Cedric Mullins, who had a huge bounceback 2020. The farm system is exceeding the League’s modest historic expectations for it, and so, potentially, might be prospects surrounded by high expectations. A breakthrough, for both, could be around the corner.