Until the Orioles’ series against the New York Yankees Sept. 11-13, the Orioles had exceeded expectations during the truncated 2020 season. Fans have enjoyed the season, but some had been looking forward to another combination of a last-place finish and a high draft pick so the team’s effort to rebuild stayed on track.
That could still happen, but the fact is there were somewhat meaningful games being played by the Orioles in the month of September. So with some big-league success and a complete lack of a minor-league campaign, what happened to the rebuild? Is it still on track?
Several young prospects, including shortstop Gunnar Henderson, are mixing in with big leaguers and upper-level minor leaguers at the club’s alternate site at Bowie. The Orioles drafted Henderson in the second round of the 2019 MLB Draft (No. 42 overall) out of Morgan Academy (Selma, Ala.).
Henderson was the Alabama Independent School Association’s 2019 Player of the Year in basketball and possesses the athleticism necessary for precise infield actions. Henderson throws right and bats left, generating significant power from a quick, direct swing. The 6-foot-3 Henderson, who turned 19 in June, played with the Gulf Coast League Orioles in 2019 after signing with Baltimore. He helped the team win the GCL South Division title with a 38-15 record.
There’s plenty I was curious about regarding the Bowie camp, and with no access to the alternate site, I was eager to find out what the magic mix is that’s helping Henderson get better while players like Ryan Mountcastle and Dean Kremer transition with ease to the major-league roster. And according to Henderson, the development of young prospects at Bowie remains right on schedule.
Coming into his first full professional year, Henderson expected to have plenty of chances to show the Orioles that they made a wise choice picking him in that 2019 draft that had elite catching prospect Adley Rutschman at the very top. Spring training (and the early camp that preceded it) was a chance to make an impression, and he did. But that was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, which forced the club’s Sarasota, Fla., facilities to shut down.
Henderson doesn’t believe his development has been negatively impacted by working at the alternate site instead of playing minor-league games.
“Being able to see these [upper-level] guys, the pitching and the harder ground balls hit, I feel like it helped my development that much more,” Henderson said.
Lessons learned on the practice fields ideally translate to games against other teams. But without playing different teams, simulated games take center stage. These contests are slowed down so reps can be instructive and serve a specific purpose. Coaches can set up a two-out, runner-on-third situation and show players what’s expected of them. Henderson isn’t letting anything go over his head during this opportunity, and he’s OK with the lack of games … for now.
“Taking this as seriously as I can under the circumstances, with game-like situations,” Henderson said.
Fans have noticed some recent call-ups from Bowie have hit the ground running. Mountcastle, for example, has exceeded the high expectations laid out for him as he progressed quickly through the minor-league system. Guys are relaxed and at ease in the box, and it could be a sign of something going on at Bowie — but what?
According to Henderson, it’s seeing pitchers with big-league experience day in and day out during the simulated games.
There are “major-league arms down here and whenever you get used to seeing them brings some confidence,” Henderson said. “Hitters are tearing the cover off the ball and bringing themselves up there.”
Even though some of the guys Henderson spent time with have already moved on, he is definitely paying attention to their success. Asked about Mountcastle and outfielders DJ Stewart and Cedric Mullins (each of whom spent time in Bowie this year), Henderson said he’s enjoyed watching them contribute in Baltimore.
“Being able to see them contribute already in huge ways is really cool to watch,” Henderson said.
The youngster may have even played a role in Stewart’s recent hot streak. Henderson said that not only did Stewart provide him advice, but the two would “compete in BP every day … and that was fun.”
Another element of the rebuild that is getting tougher to ignore is how the system stacks up throughout baseball. Talent and depth have been added through trades and recent drafts. Now that he’s in the system, Henderson is a big part of that improvement even though he’s barely started logging at-bats and innings in the field. Having a place in a system on the rise is “very humbling,” he said.
“Growing up, this is what I always wanted to do,” Henderson said. “To help the O’s win would be my ultimate goal.”
Under normal circumstances, fans would be able to see players at Aberdeen, Delmarva, Frederick, Bowie and Norfolk — and for the hardcore fans, the Gulf Coast League in Florida. These snapshots would provide answers as to who is getting better and how. That option is gone in 2020, but the exposure of being around major-league pitching is having a positive impact on Henderson. No matter what level he reached this season, the chances of the 19-year-old seeing big-league breaking balls, splits and changeups would have been very low.
This forced trial by fire is rubbing off on Henderson in a big way.
“Being able to see these guys and adjust to them, I’ve enjoyed the challenge and I feel like I can hang with them,” Henderson said.
There’s reason to think that for an already advanced bat, some high-level seasoning at such a young age could be both a crucial and fortunate developmental accelerant. Still, Henderson has to take what he’s learned at Bowie to games. This process is still going on with hitters at Bowie.
“Big-league guys want me to do some specific [BP] rounds. Do it each and every week and my swing gets better,” Henderson said. “Then I hit the ball even better during sim games.”
The coaching and instruction are consistent, and it’s coming from an experienced group of minor-league coaches and coordinators.
“Just being able to talk to all the Double-A and Triple-A coaches really helps a lot — learning stuff that I can develop into my routine to get better for games and also further my game defensively and offensively,” Henderson said.
In addition to new coaches, it seems that the unique minds of backstops are influencing Henderson at camp. He said he spends the most time with and learns the most from catchers Taylor Davis, Adley Rutschman and Austin Wynns.
Henderson is also getting an education by facing some of the most talented arms in the system, and he had some scouting reports on a few of the big names. Righty Dean Kremer had been logging innings at Bowie before his call-up.
“He’s tough because he can really bear down and put it where he wants it,” Henderson said.
I remember watching a prolonged plate appearance at minor-league camp in which Henderson worked lefty DL Hall for an opposite field double down the left field line. It took some skill to battle against Hall’s arsenal, and that’s still the case.
“You always have to be on your ‘A’ game with him — 98 from the left side bearing in makes it a lot tougher,” Henderson said.
Prized righty starter Grayson Rodriguez is a tough at-bat, too.
“With Grayson, his best pitch right now is that changeup,” Henderson said. “But he’s always 97-99 with the fastball.”
The pitcher most responsible for giving Henderson some trouble and helping him learn is veteran minor-league right-hander Eric Hanhold.
“Hanhold starts at 96,” Henderson said. “He’s got a pretty good slider but the change is his best because it’s 90-92 and it’s just hard to pick up.”
Veterans sharing baseball knowledge to young prospects is so much better than fans could’ve imagined just a few months ago when there were few, if any, expectations for the 2020 season. For a second, it makes me think of the players throughout the organization missing out on this and how much I hope they can get back to a normal baseball calendar as soon as possible. There are so many names with game throughout this system, and so many aspects of the rebuild were picking up steam pre-pandemic.
Despite the interruptions and changes across the board, it’s plain to see that the Orioles’ system has an arrow pointed up. That’s a bit clearer than it was when Henderson was drafted about a year and a half ago. If everything works out, fans will see Henderson in Baltimore batting near the top of the order and saving runs at shortstop in the future.
“I’m ready to get up there — hopefully help out in a big way and win a World Series in a year or two,” Henderson said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Orioles