Adley Rutschman’s arrival with the Orioles last May was the moment the switch flipped and the Orioles started winning. It wasn’t until a few months later — when Gunnar Henderson was summoned from the minors on Aug. 31 of last year — that the magnitude of what’s being built here became clear.
Rutschman’s stardom was fated from the moment he was drafted. Henderson’s story has been a little different, and now a year into what has the makings of a decorated major league career, the 22-year-old infielder represents the vanguard for the type of talent that can drive the Orioles to even greater heights moving forward.
Developmental success stories are becoming the norm where the Orioles are concerned, with more and more players from their recent drafts contributing in the majors. The youngest — starting with Henderson and then a trio of top prospects behind him in Jackson Holliday, Samuel Basallo, and Coby Mayo — have the potential to be the most impactful among them.
And in season where Henderson is storming toward the AL Rookie of the Year award, the reality that he’s still getting better is one of the most promising facets of an Orioles season that’s full of them.
“It’s been a whirlwind of a year,” Henderson said. “There’s been the ups and downs of the year and I’m glad to be able to go through them because it just makes you a better player when you get through it. I’ve got my feet up under me now and am just kind of holding my own at this point, and I’m looking forward to continuing to build on each and every day I get up here.”
As Henderson climbed through the minors, his goal was simple — accumulate as much experience as possible in hopes that it would eventually propel him to where he is now: the top of the Orioles’ lineup, a fixture on their infield, and a lynchpin for one of the game’s best teams.
Henderson has been that for nearly a year now; a year ago Wednesday, he was waiting on a pair of postgame bacon cheeseburgers after a game at Triple-A Norfolk when manager Buck Britton told him he was going to the big leagues.
It’s been about as good a year for him as can be expected; despite a slow start to 2022, he entered Tuesday with an .803 OPS and 26 home runs in 154 games, and has been worth four wins above replacement (WAR), according to FanGraphs. He also, perhaps crucially for him and the Orioles going forward, had another year to learn from as the precocious 22-year-old begins his major league career.
“I got all the experience I can,” Henderson said. “I went through about the most struggle you can go through at the beginning of the year, and then was able to get through it and I felt like I’ve held my own since and shown what I can do. I feel like I’ve still got a lot more to show — really, just going through it, getting the experience of a full year, and being able to have that in my back pocket and just use it for many years to come.”
It’s part of the Orioles core development philosophies to try and challenge players as much as possible; they also believe doing so at a younger age, even with a high school draftee like Henderson, has the potential to yield more benefits than with someone even a few years older.
Henderson’s example of this is perhaps the most extreme. He was the youngest player at the alternate training site at age 19 during the pandemic and was completely overwhelmed at first before finding his footing against numerous current and future major league arms. His full-season debut in 2021, when he tore through three levels, had plenty of difficulties but provided him for a blueprint to come back even better in 2022. By the time Rutschman was promoted in May, Henderson’s domination of Double-A Bowie meant he could take the mantle of the game’s top prospect from him.
Outside a stretch early this season when he had to recalibrate his plate approach, Henderson hasn’t looked back since.
Every player’s path is different. Seeing what Henderson became after hearing for so long just how beneficial his aggressive minor league assignments were, however, should equally hearten the Orioles and concern their rivals. Mayo, drafted a year after Henderson, had a similarly impressive spell at Bowie this year at age-21 as well. Improbably, Mayo had a 176 wrC+ (weighted runs created plus, which evaluates how productive a hitter is and normalizes for offensive environment, with 100 representing league-average) this year in Bowie, same as Henderson last year.
Holliday, the current No. 1 overall prospect, has, as Henderson did, reached his third level in his first full professional season, and has a .941 OPS in Bowie and a .965 OPS overall at age 19. Basallo — a headliner of the Orioles’ 2021 international signing class — has emerged as a top-100 prospect and one of the better hitters in the entire system in his full-season debut at age-18 with an .869 OPS over two levels while improving behind the plate. He will almost certainly make his Double-A debut at age 19, too.
The high-floor, productive college hitters the Orioles have used many of their top picks on have plenty of upside and value, as Rutschman, Heston Kjerstad, and Colton Cowser have demonstrated. Sprinkling in some teenage talent and watching those players grow has raised the Orioles’ ceiling significantly. Replicating Henderson’s path with the next generation of age-advanced top prospects won’t be easy, but one year of him in the majors shows just how special the results could be.