Orioles promote Gunnar Henderson, MLB’s No. 1 prospect, for playoff push
For the second time in 2022, the Orioles have promoted baseball’s No. 1 prospect to the majors.
Gunnar Henderson, whose emergence in the upper levels of the Orioles’ minor league system made him the sport’s top prospect according to Baseball America, will join Baltimore on Wednesday as the club continues its surprise playoff push. He will wear No. 2 when he makes his debut, which could occur as soon as Wednesday against the Cleveland Guardians.
Henderson, a 21-year-old infielder, becomes the second No. 1 overall prospect the Orioles have promoted this season, joining catcher Adley Rutschman. They were Baltimore’s first two draft picks under executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias, with Rutschman taken first overall in 2019 and Henderson going in the second round of the same draft. Baltimore’s third pick in 2019, outfielder Kyle Stowers, had his contract selected earlier this month.
Initially, Henderson and left-hander DL Hall were on their way to Cleveland to join the taxi squad. But as Baltimore’s infield collectively scuffles at the plate, the decision was made to add Henderson a day before rosters expand by two spots Thursday.
When Henderson makes his first appearance, he will be the youngest Orioles player to make his debut since Manny Machado in 2012. Henderson will be the youngest drafted position player to debut since Carlos Correa on June 8, 2015.
Henderson has undergone a rapid rise through the minor leagues this season, representing the Orioles in the MLB All-Star Futures Game. Between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk this year, Henderson has posted a .297 batting average and .947 OPS with 19 home runs, 79 walks and 116 strikeouts. However, his strikeout rate with the Tides has risen to 26.9%. He has yet to face a pitcher younger than him, and it’s doubtful that will change in his stint in the majors.
In a corresponding move, the Orioles optioned infielder Tyler Nevin and designated right-hander Denyi Reyes for assignment to free a place on the 40-man roster for Henderson. In addition, Baltimore signed first baseman Jesús Aguilar to a minor league deal. He will join the team in Cleveland as part of the taxi squad.
Aguilar, who was released this week by the Miami Marlins, has 15 homers, a .236 average and .674 OPS. With first baseman Ryan Mountcastle holding a .591 OPS since July 1, Aguilar is in a position to join the team Thursday once rosters expand.
Henderson has primarily split his time between third base and shortstop this season, likely making him an option at either spot for Orioles manager Brandon Hyde. But in recent weeks, he’s also made starts at first and second base, with that versatility sure to be valuable to a Baltimore team within three games of a wild-card spot.
Henderson’s rapid ascent to top prospect status and the majors is a credit to both him and the Orioles’ player development staff. After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 minor league season, Henderson spent what should have been his first full professional season as the youngest player at the Orioles’ alternate training site in Bowie, facing pitchers who had already reached the majors or were the organization’s top minor league arms.
He started the 2021 season impressively with Low-A Delmarva before his bat cooled with High-A Aberdeen. He joined Bowie late in the year, building on that experience for a breakout campaign in 2022.
Entering the year as Baseball America’s No. 57 overall prospect, Henderson skyrocketed up rankings by hitting .312/.452/.573 — good for an OPS of 1.025 — with more walks than strikeouts back at Double-A. The performance earned him a promotion in June to Triple-A, where he hit .288 with an OPS of .894 In 65 games..
The Orioles did have some concerns about his performance, notably an increase in strikeouts after his move to Norfolk and struggles in left-on-left matchups compared to his success against right-handed pitchers. But those proved minute in the end.
Now, his bat will be in the Orioles’ lineup as they strive to secure their first playoff berth since 2016. By waiting until now to promote Henderson, Baltimore ensured he will fall short of 45 days of service time this season, allowing him to retain his rookie eligibility in 2023 if he also records fewer than 130 regular-season at-bats for them.
Should he begin next season on the club’s opening day roster, Henderson could secure extra draft picks for the Orioles by finishing highly in major award voting early in his career, a prospect promotion incentive added to MLB’s collective bargaining agreement this offseason.