Gunnar Henderson is going to be called up to the big leagues this season. It’s not a matter of if, but when. The Orioles are keeping a 40-man roster spot open for him. This past week the prospect has been given starts at first and second base, two areas where the big league squad has a need. It’s all building up to a promotion that should come sometime this week.
The timing feels ideal in that the Orioles have seemed to stagnate at their current spot in the playoff race over the last week or two, bouncing somewhere between a tie and 2.5 games back of the final wild card spot. The roster needs a boost, and the most obvious position that could use a jump in production is second base.
Henderson’s big league future is on the left side of the infield. Scouts like his defense at short, but they love it at third base. However, there is little reason for the Orioles to switch up what they are doing at those two positions right now. Jorge Mateo might just win a Gold Glove at short, and Ramón Urías is an above-average fielder at the hot corner. This is not Manny Machado replacing Wilson Betemit in 2012.
Instead, second base is the most logical place for Henderson in the short term. The -0.6 fWAR that the Orioles have gotten from that position this season is the second-worst in the league, ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates. Rougned Odor fills an important leadership role on the roster, but his production has been lacking. And while Terrin Vavra has showed composure at the plate in his brief career, there seems to be organizational concerns about his infield defense. Henderson would be an upgrade across the board, provided that he feels comfortable at a position he has spent a total of 19 innings playing in 2022.
It’s no accident that the Orioles are waiting until now to call up the talented youngster. Players with fewer than 45 days of time spent on a big league roster retain their rookie eligibility. When the O’s begin their series against the White Sox on Tuesday there will be 44 days remaining in the season.
The Orioles want Henderson to maintain his rookie eligibility ahead of the 2023 season in order to take advantage of the new perks that come with placing top prospects on Opening Day rosters. In short, teams that promote players that are universally recognized as top prospects will be rewarded with draft picks if those players go on to place high in year-end award voting. The O’s missed out on that with Adley Rutschman this year due to an injury in the spring.
It’s an interesting shift in the service-time manipulation conversation. Henderson was never going to get a full year of MLB service time in 2022. He entered the season with just five games played about High-A. It was reasonable of the Orioles to have him to spend extended time in Bowie and Norfolk prior to coming to Baltimore. But if those draft pick rules weren’t in place would he have been in the bigs weeks ago?
It’s impossible to know. However, we do know that Henderson has been impressing scouts to an extreme degree all summer. Baseball America named him the top prospect in the sport in early August. MLB Pipeline and The Athletic’s Keith Law both placed him second, with Law pointing out that Henderson has had trouble against southpaws (.217/.323/.377 vs. LHP this season) and has seen his ground ball rate increase at Triple-A. So there are certainly things that the 21-year-old could improve upon.
The environment best suited to help Henderson work on those areas of his game is subjective. There is a decent chance that Henderson could struggle in the short term as a big leaguer, much like Rutschman did before him. But those tough times now could better serve the futures of both Henderson and the Orioles if it allows him to start 2023 firing on all cylinders. And as mentioned before, even a struggling Henderson could be better than what the team currently has happening at second base on a daily basis.
Giving top prospects a taste of the next level at the tail end of their season has become an annual move for Mike Elias’ front office. Henderson got five games in Bowie last season ahead of starting 2022 there. Another promotion for Henderson here would serve a similar purpose but on a much grander scale.
It would also give the Orioles a chunk of data going into a crucial offseason. One in which Elias has publicly said the team is going to “significantly escalate the payroll.” The more information that they can gather about what they have in-house, the more effective (theoretically) they can be in their pursuit of external talent over the winter.
It is no accident that this team seemed to turn around the moment Rutschman stepped into the clubhouse back in May. He is a generational talent that plays one of the most important positions on the field. Henderson won’t arrive with quite as much fan fare, and his impact is unlikely to be as immediate. But the infielder will play a crucial role in the future of the Orioles, and he could be exactly what this magical 2022 team needs to make a late postseason push.