Undoubtedly, the Orioles organization’s player of the year is GUNNAR HENDERSON. The rookie rock star of an infielder will almost certainly win the O’s minor league player of the year, but his 2022 stacks up with any at the big league level as well. The consistency of GUNNAR’s awesomeness makes it easy to forget that he rose from starting for High-A Aberdeen to starting for the Orioles in less than a year. His play since arriving in Baltimore has routinely given Birdland enough reason to question, “Is GUNNAR HENDERSON even better than we thought?”
More than just showcasing his individual brilliance, HENDERSON has been the epitome of the Orioles organization’s ability to take raw talent and develop it into impact MLB players. With the minor league season coming to an end this week, we’re fast approaching the season of speculation for those prospects that haven’t yet made it to Camden Yards. So which one of these prospects can be 2023’s GUNNAR HENDERSON? Let’s lay out all of the best candidates.
The Easy Choices
Colton Cowser: The No.5 overall pick from the 2021 draft had his own meteoric rise in 2022. The sweet-swinging lefty outfielder started the season with Aberdeen and is currently holding it down as Triple-A Norfolk’s cleanup hitter. Much of Cowser’s rise can be attributed to the dominance he showed at Double-A for the Bowie Baysox. When he was called up to Bowie on June 28, many questioned the move as Cowser was only hitting .258 in 62 games for the IronBirds. Cowser was quick to silence those doubters, putting up a triple slash line of .341/.469/.568 with 20 extra-base hits in 39 games.
If Cowser debuts in Baltimore sometime next June, he’ll have made the same Aberdeen-to-Baltimore jump that GUNNAR made, also in less than a year’s time. With the state of the Orioles’ outfield heading into next season, it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where the front office gives their former first-round pick a shot sooner rather than later. Austin Hays hasn’t seemed healthy since June, and his .217 batting average since the All-Star break has many questioning his role in the O’s long-term plans. Anthony Santander has probably hit his way into another starring role in 2023, but it’s very possible that more of his ABs will come at DH next season. All of that lines up well for Cowser to compete with the likes of Kyle Stowers and utility player Terrin Vavra for playing time in the corner outfield. While he’ll still likely start 2023 at Norfolk, an early season call-up for Cowser is not out of the question.
Connor Norby: Given how most viewed him to start the season, Norby’s rise through the Orioles’ minor league system is arguably more impressive than GUNNAR’s. Coming out of East Carolina, Norby was billed as a hit-first infielder who lacked the athleticism and arm strength to play anywhere but second as a pro. While he’s still destined for second base defensively, Norby has shown throughout 2022 that he’s a complete player at the plate. His 28 home runs across three minor league levels are second only to Santander in the entire Orioles’ organization. The former second-round pick was another questionable promotion early in the season, as he was hitting .237 for Aberdeen at the time. Since then, he’s gone on to hit .305 with a .591 slugging percentage across 70 games at Bowie and Norfolk.
Norby’s path to playing time at the MLB level is perhaps a little less clear than Cowser's, but there’s still a path. His biggest selling point is his high-level performance against lefties throughout the minor leagues. Throughout 2022, Norby has put up a .281 average and an .887 OPS against southpaws. His ability against lefties could be a welcome addition to the 2023 Orioles, as the ‘22 O’s are the sixth-worst team in all of baseball at hitting lefties. Like Vavra, Norby has shown the versatility to move to LF if necessary, and that may be enough for him to earn a call-up. If Norby can make it to Baltimore by the end of June 2023, he’ll also complete the High-A to MLB in one year challenge.
The Dark Horses
Dylan Beavers: The big left-handed outfielder from Cal was the Orioles' second pick in the 2022 draft. Since then, Beavers has done nothing but hit across both High-A and Low-A. The 21-year-old got off to such a hot start at Delmarva—hitting .359 with nine extra-base hits and 13 RBIs—that he earned a promotion to Aberdeen in three weeks. Across his first 87 professional ABs, Beavers put up a .322 average with a .898 OPS.
There are plenty of reasonable concerns as to whether Beavers will be able to keep up this torrid pace as he faces better and better competition. However, after playing two full seasons of college baseball, Beavers may be better equipped than most to make a fast rise through the Orioles’ system. From a tools perspective, Beavers currently grades out as a more well-rounded Stowers with less power upside. Unlike Stowers, he also has a chance to stick in center field. That mix of defense and offensive upside may tempt Mike Elias to give him a look in Baltimore if Beavers can reach Double-A or Triple-A and show that he belongs.
Coby Mayo: Unlike the other names on this list, Mayo’s 2022 was far from ideal. Back spasms caused the 20-year-old to miss some time and then be sent down to Aberdeen for a rehab assignment. After getting called back up to Bowie on August 9, Mayo showed some of that promise that has him as the Orioles’ #7 prospect, hitting .259 with four HRs and 17 RBIs in 31 games. What earns the former fourth-round pick the inclusion in this article is the ridiculous tools he possesses. The 6’5” corner infielder has shown power to rival HENDERSON’s raw power, and his arm ranks as the best of any player in the Orioles’ system.
His fit in Baltimore is both easy to imagine and hard to see actually coming to fruition in 2023. Although he only played at the hot corner in 2022, it’s easy to imagine Mayo providing depth at first as well. Currently, a 1B/DH role similar to what we’ve seen previously from Ryan Mountcastle and Trey Mancini seems like the most likely role for Mayo once he reaches the big leagues. That being said, perhaps Mike Elias & Co. will look to keep him at third or add him to the corner outfield mix to make use of that big arm.
Mayo is certainly the least likely of this quartet to see time in the majors in ‘23 due to his age and the aspects of his game that still need considerable development. However, the Orioles have shown consistency in getting the best out of players with elite tools. Recently, there also seems to be a player every year that makes a leap much bigger than anything experts expected of him. So if you’re going to swing for the fences on projecting a player to make that leap, there’s no one better to swing for the fences with than Mayo.