clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Know Your Orioles 40-man: Gunnar Henderson

Henderson is the second Orioles #1 prospect to debut this year, which hasn’t stopped being exciting yet.

Gunnar Henderson smiles as he leaves the field following an Orioles victory
We’re all just as happy to see you, Gunnar.
Photo by Nick Cammett/Getty Images

Over the offseason, Camden Chat published an article about each member of the Orioles 40-man roster. During the 2022 season, we will update on new arrivals after they make it to the roster.

How he arrived: Drafted by Orioles, second round/42nd overall in 2019; contract selected 8/31/22

Who left: Denyi Reyes designated for assignment 8/31/22

You could hardly have scripted a better major league debut for Gunnar Henderson. Two hits, including a home run. Hitting the ball with authority every time, even when making outs. Made every routine play that went his way in the field. Beyond just that, there were the immediately memorable images of Henderson swinging so hard as he hit his home run that his helmet flew off, prompting gleeful laughter from Jim Palmer as the cameras showed Henderson with luxurious mane flowing as he dashed around the bases.

Hardly anyone would have predicted that something like this would happen during the 2022 season before it began. Henderson himself did. It’s great he had that confidence and lived up to it. As a general rule, though, there are not many players who are age 20 (or younger) who are ticketed for an MLB debut in the coming season. One way you can see this is easy: Henderson, now that he’s arrived in MLB for the final month-plus of the season, is the youngest player there, having debuted at the age of 21 years, 63 days.

Henderson’s ascent as a prospect, making his way as high as the #1 prospect in the game on some rankings before this debut, has accelerated over the past 12 months or so. He didn’t exactly start out in complete obscurity. While no one whose favorite team was picking in the top five or ten picks in the 2019 draft would have been salivating over Henderson, he had a pretty solid late first round/early second round talent ranking.

At MLB Pipeline, Henderson was the 27th ranked prospect. FanGraphs rated him 40th in the class, while Keith Law had him 41st. The Orioles picked him 42nd and gave him a bonus commensurate with the 31st pick slot value, $2.3 million. There was nothing not to like in the Pipeline scouting report from before Henderson even turned pro:

One of the better hitters in this year’s high school class, Henderson produces a lot of hard contact from gap to gap. He has shown more bat speed from the left side of the plate this spring and his power is catching up to his hitting ability as he continues to add muscle to his 6-foot-3 frame. He has been a little faster this year as well, more consistently recording above-average run times. ... There’s still some debate (about whether Henderson will stick at shortstop or slide to third base.)

Henderson has lived up to this fairly sunny initial report, but it was no sure thing. It is not hard to find reports that highlight amateur prospects that seem to have all the foundational tools to be successful but it never quite all comes together in development. FanGraphs report noted the risk: Henderson faced weaker competition in his senior season, and he also hadn’t shown any elite-level tools up to that point.

Mike Elias and the Orioles liked something they saw from a player who was still just 17 on the day he was drafted. That’s looking like solid judgment now. The prospect writing world started to notice Henderson in midseason updates last year. By then, FanGraphs had started flipping to true believers on Henderson, writing this:

Henderson has a very promising hit/power combination and is not only very likely to stay on the dirt, but might also be an above-average third base defender ... 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.

Even as someone who was buying into the Henderson hype, my most optimistic scenario for him this season is one where he’d spend about half the season at Double-A Bowie, the second half at Triple-A Norfolk, then be in the Opening Day roster consideration for next year.

Maybe that was even the plan the Orioles had for him. Henderson was just too good for them to stick with that. With an OPS over 1.000 after 45 Bowie games - all this before he turned 21 - he forced the promotion to Norfolk. There, Henderson’s numbers weren’t quite as gaudy but were still impressive. Before the Baltimore call-up, he batted .288/.390/.504 in 65 games there. He hit 11 home runs and stole 10 bases.

You could find some little warts to point out if you were, say, a general manager looking for a plausible public excuse that didn’t require admitting the real reason Henderson wasn’t called up sooner. Henderson’s strikeout rate increased at Triple-A, over 30% in July and August. The lefty batter has had some struggles against left-handed pitchers as well. It seems now that the true reason was in order to preserve his rookie status into the 2023 season. This requires fewer than 45 days of service time and fewer than 130 MLB at-bats.

Henderson’s first MLB game featured some excitement from his bat. His second game, where he played shortstop, he was exciting with the glove, making two phenomenal defensive plays. I’m still thinking about when he turned a 6-3 double play by fielding a tricky chopper on the run, letting his momentum carry him to touch second base unassisted, then firing an accurate throw to first without steadying himself at all. The Orioles have turned a lot of double plays this year. Not many have looked like that.

Even with the top prospect status, this was an aggressive addition. We haven’t seen Elias be this aggressive in getting a prospect to the big leagues as the rebuild project reached this point. The final month of the season with the Orioles trying to chase down and then stay in a postseason spot is going to be that much more exciting with Henderson making an impact. He’s just been that good.

Still to come: Jesús Aguilar