He's No. 1: Baseball America's JJ Cooper on Gunnar Henderson

Baseball America has been putting out its top 100 prospects list since 1990, and only once previously has an organization had two different players ranked No. 1 in back-to-back years in their January winter rankings. Now the Orioles have a chance to match that.

Last January, Adley Rutschman was No. 1 and this week infielder Gunnar Henderson moved to No. 1 in the latest Baseball America top 100 update. They are now updating their January release once a month in season. If Henderson stays No. 1 in the January rating this coming winter, the Orioles would match the Cardinals, who had J.D. Drew No. 1 in 1999 and Rick Ankiel No. 1 in 2000.

By the way, Rutschman and Henderson were Mike Elias’ first two draft picks after taking over as Orioles executive vice president and general manager.

Henderson has had a remarkable year on the Baltimore farm starting at Double-A Bowie and moving to Triple-A Norfolk in early June. He has hit for the cycle this year and played in the All-Star Futures Game. He is just 21 years old.

When Rutschman reached 130 big league at-bats, he “graduated” from the top 100 list and thus was removed. For a time, Tigers outfielder Riley Greene moved to No. 1, and then in late July, Blue Jays catcher Gabriel Moreno was No. 1. But now Henderson has passed him for the top spot, as Moreno dropped to third with outfielder Jackson Chourio of the Brewers second.

Baseball America editor-in-chief JJ Cooper explained why Henderson ascended to No. 1.

“I think it is pretty clear that Gunnar Henderson checks the most boxes (for No. 1),” said Cooper. “He has performed at the upper levels of the minors, which is always useful. He has an extremely well-rounded game. It’s really hard to point to anything that he doesn’t do well. He has five above average tools or better. He is going to have plenty of defensive value, whether it’s shortstop or third base. He is a really, really good baserunner. He hits for average and power and has a strong arm.

“You combine that with that performance and it helps you feel comfortable that all the projections we are hearing and seeing are being matched by performance.”

After going 1-for-4 with two runs and two walks in Triple-A Norfolk's win last night, through 94 games with the Baysox and Tides, Henderson is batting .303/.430/.553 with a .983 OPS, 20 doubles, six triples, 17 homers, 16 steals and 63 RBIs.

His plate discipline took a big leap forward this year. In 2021, he struck out 143 times with 56 walks. This year those numbers are 87 strikeouts to 71 walks, and his on-base percentage went from .350 to .430.

“I will say that is not a shocking development,” added Cooper. “When you talked to scouts last year, there were scouts that very much thought this was going to come for him. That his performance last year was probably a little bit below what they expected in the long term for him. It’s hard to say they expected this because this year he’s performed about as well as about anybody in the minors. But it’s definitely a step forward and for an organization that has had a number of hitters step forward this year.”

I asked Cooper what would be Henderson’s upside for production at the big league level.

“The thing that I come back to, what I think he is going to do really well, is contribute in so many different ways," Cooper said. "I keep going back to the baserunning thing – he’s an exceptional baserunner. And I don’t mean from the standpoint that he’s an 80 runner and burner. He runs well, but he is someone that is going to take extra bases where you will be watching a game and think that was a really smart, aggressive move.

“You add in how he is going to impact a game defensively. Whether it’s short or third, it probably comes down to team need. He could be a very good defender at short, but I talk to people who feel at third he could be one of best defenders at the position in baseball. So you have those aspects where he can help a team in addition to being a potential middle of the order bat.”

Baseball America has announced a Minor League Player of the Year award winner since 1981. The only Oriole to win it was Matt Wieters in 2008. Recent winners have included Ronald Acuna Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and last year Bobby Witt Jr.

“He is one of the top candidates for Minor League Player of the Year, no doubt about that,” Cooper said of Henderson. “If you look at our criteria, there are a couple of things there. The season you have is the most important thing. But on top of that, we are trying to award a Minor League Player of the Year that is an award that has staying power. It’s not just the best minor league season. It’s the best season by a player that we expect to go on to do great things at the major league level as well. Gunnar Henderson checks a lot of those boxes." 

Orioles lineup vs. Blue Jays
Mountcastle spends another night coming up big vs....

By accepting you will be accessing a service provided by a third-party external to https://www.masnsports.com/