The longer Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson play baseball in the Orioles system the easier it is to picture them playing in Baltimore. The duo have the pedigree, a proven track record at multiple affiliates, and now find themselves just one level from the major leagues.
Henderson makes the jump after being named the Eastern League Player of the Week. It was not his first time winning the award but certainly figures to be his last. Henderson got the bump after slashing .312/.452/.573 this season. His 41/38 walk-to-strikeout ratio represented an impressive batting eye and the fear he struck in opposing pitchers.
Westburg’s .247/.344/.473 line does not jump off the page like his teammate’s, but the 23-year-old demonstrated everything he needed to at Bowie. He tallied 28 hits (10 doubles) in his final 22 games with the Baysox. The guy can play.
I spent last weekend in Altoona watching the duo’s final games at Double-A. Henderson tripled and walked during his last outing, while Westburg reached base on Friday and Saturday. The duo each had a day off over the weekend as Bowie completed its infield merry-go-round.
Both players should continue to grow at Norfolk. While initial concerns with Henderson’s defense seemed solely based on his size, they are not completely without merit. Henderson does appear athletic enough to handle the position, but that does not mean that there is not room to improve.
Henderson experienced a difficult stretch in the bottom of the eighth inning against Altoona on Friday night. Henderson, playing up the middle with two out and a man on first, booted a ground ball that allowed the tying run to reach base. The 20-year-old may have been distracted by a breaking runner with a 3-2 count, but he failed to corral the ball before attempting a throw to first.
Henderson shifted back to the hole at shortstop for the next play. Pirates prospect Matt Gorski laced a sharply hit ball that bounced one time before deflecting off Henderson and into shallow left field. The ball knocked Henderson’s hat from his head and allowed Altoona to trim the lead to one. The play was ruled a base hit by the hometown scorekeeper, and Bowie eventually held on for a 3-2 victory.
Henderson took the next day off with Westburg playing third, César Prieto at second and Joey Ortiz taking Henderson’s spot at short. Bowie’s infield rotation represented a surplus of talent and defensive versatility. However, with Henderson and Westburg inching closer to the bigs, it’s fair to wonder if Baltimore will place more emphasis on playing one position.
The duo will now share time with Rylan Bannon, Richie Martin, Cadyn Grenier, and Shed Long Jr. The roster will get more crowded when Kelvin Gutiérrez returns from injury and Terrin Vavra concludes his rehab assignment. Tyler Nevin could always be optioned again with the Orioles still giving him a look at third base.
I’m not looking to overreact from the eye test this past weekend. Henderson has received praise for improving his defense this year, and his ability to play multiple positions bodes well for Baltimore. However, it could foreshadow a situation where the Orioles claim they want to see more defensively from the youngster before promoting him à la Jahmai Jones.
Henderson and Westburg are both higher ranked prospects than Jones and both should take precedent in Norfolk’s lineup. Bannon’s time may have already come and gone, and Long Jr. should receive a shot soon if the Orioles intend to give him one.
Westburg has traditionally needed some time to adjust at a new level before putting everything together. It took him 12 games to hit his first Double-A home run at Bowie last season and 14 outings to record a multi-hit game. Westburg slashed .232/.323/.429 over 30 games with the Baysox last season but hit .269/.352/.577 in the month of September. For what it’s worth, his defense looks major league ready right now.
Henderson tallied three hits in 15 at bats after a brief call up to Bowie at the end of last year. He took the league by storm this season and never appeared overmatched despite the age gap. The former second-round pick will turn 21 at the end of June.
Westburg bested Henderson in the home run battle with a nine-to-eight advantage, but Henderson stole 12 bases compared to Westburg’s three this season. It’s been a delight to watch the duo develop a competitive and jovial relationship while progressing through the system. Henderson referred to Westburg as a lifelong friend at the end of last year. He also remarked in the same interview that he still feels most comfortable at shortstop
The duo represent a long-await infield improvement with Ortiz and Coby Mayo tagging closely behind. The Orioles will likely require the pair to prove it for a longer stretch at Norfolk, but the club took another step toward the future with the promotions this week.