SARASOTA, Fla. — The American League Rookie of the Year Award proves it: Over the course of the 2023 season, there were few players who could find themselves playing at the level of Gunnar Henderson.

But after making his spring training debut Monday in the Orioles’ 7-2 loss to the Minnesota Twins, Henderson was quick to push aside that accolade and all the statistics that reinforce his dominant rookie season.

“There’s a lot of things I didn’t do that great,” said Henderson, even if his well-earned honors seem to prove otherwise. “There was some I did pretty well, but I feel there’s still a lot of room to improve and there’s a lot more in the tank.”

This is Henderson. He never rests on his laurels, so the 22-year-old is left to nitpick pieces of his game he wishes to improve. Sure, he got off to a slow start, hitting .170 in the middle of May. But Henderson roared to a strong finish the rest of the way, ending the year with a .255 average and .814 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. His 82 RBI were the second most on the team. His 28 homers were tied for the Orioles lead.

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Still, Henderson is programmed this way, and it has served him well. So now that Henderson is healthy after dealing with an oblique aggravation for the first two weeks of the spring, his mind has shifted to re-earning his place among baseball’s best players.

“Gunnar’s so driven that sometimes you gotta slow him down a little bit,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s got incredible makeup, unbelievable worker, plays the game as hard as anybody. You want him to enjoy it a little bit. He’s so easy to coach and so fun to watch play.”

Henderson opened his spring with a line-drive single into right field. He said the biggest task ahead of him is to find his timing at the plate, but he thinks that should only take him a few games at most.

“Obviously, there’s still a lot of time in spring, so just wanted to be conservative so it doesn’t sit there and linger around the season,” Henderson said of his oblique injury. “Glad to be out there feeling healthy.”

With about a month remaining in Sarasota, Henderson is confident he’ll be ready to play on opening day. His line drive was an early example of what he’ll bring once there.

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Mullins pulled, but Hyde isn’t worried

Cedric Mullins exited Monday’s game in the middle of the first inning with right hamstring discomfort. The Orioles outfielder had reached second base and took his lead as usual. Then, between pitches, he signaled to the dugout and walked off the diamond.

Mullins was met by head athletic trainer Brian Ebel near the dugout. Between innings, Mullins left the dugout and headed back toward the clubhouse complex beyond right field at Ed Smith Stadium.

Hyde said Mullins was removed as a precaution and that Mullins did not undergo an MRI. “I don’t think any of us are alarmed by it,” he said. “It’s one of those day-to-day things right now.”

The 29-year-old is an integral part of Baltimore’s outfield, holding down center field since a breakout All-Star campaign in 2021. Mullins missed time last year, however, because of two stints on the injured list with a groin strain.

A rough outing for the new closer

Right-hander Craig Kimbrel, making his second appearance of the spring, was hit around by the Twins on Monday. He allowed five hits, including a homer and double, and four earned runs.

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Kimbrel was signed this offseason to be the presumptive closer in Baltimore, filling in for right-hander Félix Bautista, who underwent Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery and will miss the 2024 campaign. Kimbrel also allowed a homer in his first spring appearance last week.

“Like a lot of our guys today, behind in the count a little bit, and a tough time kind of commanding,” Hyde said, noting that it’s not unusual for hiccups to occur early in spring. “Just not as sharp, probably, as normal.”

Akin remains spotless

While many of Baltimore’s pitchers struggled, left-hander Keegan Akin pitched two clean innings. As several relievers push for a place in the bullpen, Akin’s performances have been especially strong.

Akin struck out two batters in his two spotless innings Monday. And in four innings total this spring, Akin has yet to allow a hit. He has worked in his slider a few times in 0-0 counts, a point of emphasis for him this spring, so he can keep batters off balance.

“Definitely feeling back to my old self, honestly,” said Akin, who dealt with a back injury last season. “Kind of got over the injury hump and we’re healthy, so that’s kind of all that matters at this point.”

Akin said he hopes to command all three of his pitches (four-seam fastball, slider, change-up) for strikes. “Being unpredictable is really the big one for me,” he said.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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