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Orioles 2021 prospect preview: Gunnar Henderson

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Apart from a certain high-profile catcher, Henderson may be the Orioles prospect with the most hype surrounding him.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles-Media Day USA TODAY NETWORK

The Orioles have suffered from a lack of intriguing middle infield prospects ever since the duo of Manny Machado and Jonathan Schoop made their way to Baltimore nearly a decade ago. Mike Elias appears to have made it a priority to improve in that department, stockpiling athletic young shortstops with upside. The member of that group with the most potential is Gunnar Henderson.

Henderson was selected 42nd overall in the 2019 draft, and the Orioles had to fork over a $2.3 million signing bonus to convince him to skip out on his commitment to Auburn University and go pro.

Even at the time, there was plenty to like about Henderson. He had not yet turned 18 years old, and he was coming off a school year in which he was named Alabama’s high school basketball and baseball player of the year. MLB Pipeline ranked him as their 27th-best player available in 2019; the O’s taking him 15 picks later than that represented good value.

Now, almost two years into his professional career, Henderson is turning heads. He was the youngest player at the Orioles alternate camp last summer and, according to reports, held his own against some of the organization’s top arms.

O’s director of player development Matt Blood was especially impressed. He gave Henderson oodles of praise in an interview done with MLB Pipeline.

“He was the most exciting guy in camp for me,” Blood said. “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.”

Those positive feelings have carried into early 2021. Pipeline regards him as the best athlete in the Orioles entire system, and there is widespread belief that Henderson will make his way into “Top 100” lists by the start of the 2022 season.

It makes sense then that Henderson currently finds himself regarded slightly below the O’s current crop of “Top 100” types. Pipeline and FanGraphs have him fifth while The Athletic’s Keith Law pushes him down to sixth, with shortstop Adam Hall surprisingly sitting between Henderson and the consensus top four prospects in Baltimore’s farm.

No outlet seems too keen on going all in on Henderson before he proves his ability in a full season of minor league baseball, something he is yet to do as a pro. To this point, he has just 108 MiLB at bats to his name, all of which came with the O’s rookie league club in 2019. And while the performance at the team’s alternate camp last year is certainly important, national scouts won’t be able to provide an up-to-date analysis until later this year.

Something that scouts will be watching is how Henderson’s athleticism is impacted as he ages and adds weight to his 6-foot-2 frame. While he is a shortstop at the moment, many believe he could move to third base in time.

From Pipeline:

The jury is still out on whether Henderson sticks at shortstop or will require a move to third as his body continues to mature. But the Orioles believe there is enough athleticism there to move him around out of choice, not need, after he held his own defensively at third and even center field at times during instructional camp. Henderson’s age and athleticism should give them more than enough time to sort out those particulars.

It’s nice to hear that the Orioles think Henderson can stick at shortstop, but other places don’t agree with that assessment. Law guesses that Henderson eventually gets pushed to third, but does offer up the fact that “he has the arm” for the position. FanGraphs’s Eric Longenhagen says that Henderson is “very likely to kick over to third base, and there’s even a chance he outgrows it,” but ultimately views him as an “above-average third base defender” long term.

The obvious concern with moving a player from shortstop to third base is that it puts more pressure on the bat to come around. Fortunately for the Orioles and Henderson, offense is where the 19-year-old is expected to excel.

From Pipeline:

A physical left-handed hitter, Henderson produces good bat speed from his projectable 6-foot-3 frame, which has elicited comparisons to Corey Seager. The power upside is big, potentially plus at the highest level.

From FanGraphs:

Henderson has a very promising hit/power combination...Henderson can drop the bat head to impact pitches down and in, or he can flatten it out to barrel pitches up and away from him, and he often laces the latter to left field. He does all of this with quiet control of his swing; he’s not selling out to generate the power or swinging conservatively just to make a ton of contact. Henderson raked as a high schooler, both against varsity pitching in the southeast and on the showcase circuit, and was advanced enough that he could have moved more quickly than most other 2019 high school draftees, but 2020 didn’t allow for that.

Regardless of which left side position Henderson ends up playing, a Seager-like profile at the plate would give Orioles fans a whole lot to be happy about. But again, these promising skills will need to be put to the test before too many hopes about the future can be pinned to Henderson.

Had there been a minor league season in 2020, Henderson might have seen time in both Low-A Delmarva and High-A Frederick. The successful experience at the alternate camp in Bowie provided a decent substitute.

Henderson’s most likely starting spot for the upcoming season looks to be in Aberdeen, where the IronBirds now serve as the Orioles High-A affiliate. A truly outstanding performance there could earn him a promotion to Double-A Bowie late in the summer, but the Orioles bar for “graduating a level” is sometimes quite high, and they won’t push one of their top prospects faster than they deem best for his development.