February 2, 2023

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After Adley, G-Rod, keep an eye on this O's top prospect

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ALTOONA, Pa. – On a beautiful late Sunday afternoon here prior to the most recent MLB Pipeline Game of the Month, 20-year-old Gunnar Henderson dropped some excellent wisdom that works for a life in baseball and, well, just life in general.

“One of my good friends who’s in Triple-A told me to be where my feet are,” said Henderson, the Orioles’ No. 3 prospect and No. 46 on the overall Top 100. “So I do that each and every day and just think about that and take that to heart.”

After going 1-for-4 with an RBI, it turned out Henderson’s feet were joining his friend in Triple-A, with the Orioles sending him and teammate Jordan Westburg up to Norfolk following the game. Both will join the Tides in Nashville as they open a series there on Tuesday.

Henderson may be overshadowed by his organization mates, Adley Rutschman and Grayson Rodriguez, who are baseball’s No. 1 hitting and pitching prospects, respectively, but when the 20-year-old takes the field at his new level for the first time, he’ll be the youngest player to debut in Triple-A this season. And lest one thinks this is a rush job, or an organization desperate to get a top prospect to the big leagues, Henderson has performed his way to the highest level of the Minors.

The infielder left the Double-A Eastern League with an OPS of 1.025, good for second in the league. He was in the top four in all three slash line stats, topping the circuit with his .452 on-base percentage, while also placing in the top 10 with 12 steals (in 14 attempts), continuing to show that the O’s 2019 Draft class isn’t ONLY about Rutschman.

The biggest development for the club’s second-rounder that year shows up in his huge OBP. While Henderson had a huge 2021, his official first full season because of the pandemic-caused shutdown in 2020, that saw him start the year in Low-A and finish it with Bowie, his numbers suffered as he got promoted and he finished the year with a 30.9 percent strikeout rate (albeit with a 12.1 percent walk rate).

He and the Orioles set out to address that with his return to Double-A this year and the lessons have stuck. Henderson’s K rate with Bowie this year was 18.3 percent and his walk rate was up close to 20 percent, a huge reason for his leap in production, though truthfully he’s been working on refining his approach for a while now.

“We’ve been working with our hitting coaches through Spring Training, and even last year, and partially into the alternate site,” Henderson said. “We stick a weighted med ball behind home plate and that kind of covers the center of the strike zone and kind of leaves off the edges. That’s where the pitchers like to live, so if can you lay off those ones that are really close, that are balls, then you’ll get yourself in more favorable counts. I’ve felt like I’ve really done that well, and hopefully keep doing that.”

Henderson hit 17 homers in 2021, certainly a respectable total for someone who was a teenager to start the year and had played in just 29 rookie-ball games prior to the season. With a 60 grade on his future power (on the 20-to-80 scouting scale), it’s clear evaluators saw more power to come. Henderson has been on the same page, though he hasn’t tried to sell out to get to it, a sign of good things to come.

“I’m getting in more favorable counts and being able to get those pitches that I can drive,” Henderson said. “I knew the power would come along because I grew pretty fast from high school and now I’ve finally been able to start filling out my body. That’s really helped a lot.”

Drafted as a shortstop, Henderson has played both short and third as a pro, seeing more time at the hot corner this season. He doesn’t mind the versatility, learning things at third that help him at short, and vice versa. He’s heard the talk for a while about how he’ll be too big for the premium position and uses that as motivation while also understanding that flexibility will give him more than one avenue to the big leagues.

“It makes you feel sad that people think you can’t do it, and then you go out there and do it,” Henderson said. “So of course, I’ll be able to have that in the back of my mind. But whichever way gets me to the big leagues, I’ll play it wholeheartedly.”

For Orioles fans who wonder what Henderson might become one day, look only to a player Henderson has admired for a while as a fellow big, left-handed hitting shortstop.

“One of my favorite guys is Corey Seager because he kind of has the same profile as a taller shortstop,” Henderson said. “And everybody was like, ‘He can’t play it.’ And you see what he’s doing. He just got one of the biggest shortstop contracts ever, and he’s played it exceptionally well. So I feel like I can do it and hopefully, be in the same position he is.”

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