That pipeline of talent that general manager Mike Elias has often referenced in his 4+ years in charge of the Orioles finally started to produce worthwhile big leaguers last summer. As a result, the on-field product was finally worth watching in 2022. And although they ultimately missed out on postseason baseball, the team was playing meaningful games in September.
Much of that turnaround was led by catcher Adley Rutschman, a can’t-miss talent who Elias wisely selected with his first draft pick as Orioles’ boss in 2019. The Oregon State product was a do-it-all leader that brought defensive prowess behind the plate and impressive production at it. He steadied the ship and set it on the right path. But it might be the next player the Orioles took in that draft that really speeds things up.
Gunnar Henderson took a $2.3-million overslot signing bonus in 2019 to skip out on his commitment to Auburn University and turn pro. That seems to have been a wise decision as he has since rocketed through the Orioles minor league system en route to being considered the top prospect in all of baseball.
Henderson started 2022 with Double-A Bowie, but a 1.025 OPS over 47 games forced a quick promotion to Triple-A, where he stayed hot. Over the next 65 games in Norfolk, he accumulated an .894 OPS. After some positional shenanigans, the Orioles had seen enough to make the call. They added him to their active roster for the final month of the regular season.
The impact was immediate. Henderson homered in his second big league plate appearance, losing his helmet in the process. He became a fixture in Brandon Hyde’s lineup for the rest of the year, playing all over the infield and giving the offense another dimension of power and speed while retaining his rookie status for 2023.
In 34 big league games played last year, Henderson had a .259/.348/.440 slash line with four home runs and 125 wRC+. His work in the field was limited and divided up between positions of varying comfortability, but he looked the part and should only improve with experience.
Expectations for Henderson will be understandably high in the season ahead. The Orioles, as a team, turned heads last year while Henderson was tearing apart pitchers down in the minors. This isn’t a group that will “sneak up” on anyone.
But there is some ambiguity in terms of what role Henderson will fill for the 2023 O’s. He’s capable of playing anywhere on the diamond with shortstop and third base is two most common positions. In either spot he would replace one of the game’s top fielders in Fielding Bible winner Jorge Mateo or Gold Glove winner Ramón Urías.
Hyde has also been moving Henderson around the lineup this spring, batting him leadoff, third, and fourth, all of which are pretty big jobs for a 21-year-old with just a month of big league experience.
- ZiPS: .259 BA, .354 OBP, .458 SLG, 24 HR in 649 PA
- Steamer: .249 BA, .336 OBP, 418 SLG, 18 HR in 612 PA (both FanGraphs)
- Marcel: .257 BA, .335 OBP, .422 SLG, 8 HR in 266 PA (Baseball Reference)
Henderson’s profile does not jive well with Marcel’s system, at least from a volume perspective. His MLB experience is limited, and he’s far younger than most of the players in the league. That makes for a wonky projection here. Barring injury, he will be a full-time player who sticks all year in the majors, making the eight-homer projection quite light.
ZiPS is essentially buying that what Henderson did during his one-month cameo last season is replicable for an entire season. If that is the case, the Alabama native is the easy favorite for Rookie of the Year in the AL. Those projected numbers aren’t quite as good as what Julio Rodríguez did last summer in Seattle, but it’s close, and it would be a touch better than what Rutschman did at the plate for the Orioles in his debut campaign.
But let’s use the Steamer projection for our over/under discussion. While its projected OPS is the lowest of the three, at least it takes into consideration an entire season. That feels like a reasonable enough middle ground.
The case for the over
The Orioles wisely gave Henderson an early introduction to the big league life last summer. That should allow him to ease into his first full season at the level in 2023.
But it’s not like he even needs it. Henderson already looked comfortable last season, hitting the ball with authority and walking at almost an identical clip to what he did in Triple-A (12.1% vs. 12.9%).
There will undoubtedly be pressure on Henderson; such is the life of an everyday position player on an up-and-coming team. But this Orioles lineup is deep enough to protect him, and he will be given plenty of time to work through any struggles that may come his way, just like Rutschman did with the .422 OPS he had through his first 15 major league games.
The case for the under
Being a rookie is not as easy as Rutschman made it seem last season. There is a learning curve, and it could be substantial for Henderson. As good as he is, there is some swing-and-miss to his game. He carried his 26.4% strikeout rate in Triple-A last year up to the big leagues, where he went down on strikes 25.8% of the time. If he isn’t pairing that with home runs and walks, then his OPS will struggle.
Plus. a .754 OPS is a pretty lofty goal! The league-average OPS in 2022 was .706. Rutschman and Anthony Santander were the only qualified Orioles who eclipsed that mark. Some of the big-name rookies from last season, like Bobby Witt Jr. (.722 OPS) and Jeremy Peña (.715) couldn’t beat that.
What do you think? Vote in the poll and let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
Will Gunnar Henderson be over or under his Steamer projected OPS of .754 in 2023?