Scout David Jennings was on edge long before the Orioles were on the clock again.
The 2019 draft began with the selection of catcher Adley Rutschman. There was no risk of losing the top player on the board. Having the worst record and picking first has its privileges.
Jennings tracked Alabama prep shortstop Gunnar Henderson since the kid was a skinny junior at John T. Morgan Academy in Selma. He saw the room for growth, both in body and skill set. He saw Henderson playing shortstop or third base for a long time, and at a high level.
But would it be with the Orioles?
They had the 42nd overall pick and lots of time to think about it after Rutschman’s name was announced. Jennings knew the amount of interest in Henderson based on the number of scouts and executives attending his games. This wasn’t a hidden gem. This was a problem.
Was Jennings worried?
“Absolutely,” he said last week. “Just knowing the guys who had been there, I thought for sure there’s no way he gets there at 42. Luckily, he did.
“Obviously, there was a lot of heat, big heat, that came in during that year on him. It seemed like from all the teams. Getting him there at 42 was special.”
Jennings sat in the draft room inside the warehouse with nothing to do except wait. Until he received a text from Brad Ciolek, now the team’s director of draft operations, with about 10 minutes left before the Orioles' turn.
Ciolek wanted the phone number for Henderson’s agent.
“I’m like, ‘Here we go,’” Jennings said, the enthusiasm in his voice carrying him back to 2019. “So, I sent that, and Brad comes out and says, ‘Hey, congratulations, we got Gunnar.’ The whole place goes nuts. It’s like, ‘Wow, it happened, we got him there.’”
Rutschman and Henderson would be joined later by Stanford outfielder Kyle Stowers at 71st overall. New Mexico State shortstop Joey Ortiz was chosen 108th.
“That was a great draft,” Jennings said. “No question.”
Jennings was responsible for Henderson, beginning with the first game he watched in the shortstop’s junior season.
“He was 15, 16 at the time, a skinny kid with good body projection,” Jennings said. “Obviously, you could see the athleticism that he had. Followed him through his senior year. Just the way that he carried himself, the maturity, the work ethic he had, staying on an even keel no matter what the situation was. He never let the game get too fast for him. No ups or downs. It was just an even keel.
“He was very mature for his age. Obviously, the body had filled out a little bit, nothing like now, and you could see the projection that was going to happen along the way.”
Scouts really earn their pay with their ability to peer into the future.
“There’s definitely no guarantees on that one,” he said, “but the frame and everything was there, and you were just hoping he was going to end up what he is. The strength he’s got, he had strength then, but more wiry. He was physical.”
Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias got involved in Henderson’s senior season, the usual next step in the process.
There are hard and easy sells for scouts. Jennings didn’t need to do much prodding.
“That year, I want to say the second day after spring training, when they broke camp down there, Mike flew into Atlanta to see a kid over there, and the next day he came to see Gunnar,” Jennings said. “Obviously liked what he saw. I think he had seen him the summer before as the scouting director with the Astros, and he kind of brought that over with him. And Gunnar did well, what we wanted to see.”
The Orioles promoted Henderson to the majors on Aug. 31, 2022 in Cleveland. Two months after his 21st birthday. Faster than Jennings and maybe anyone else imagined.
“Yeah, especially at 17 when we sent him out and then missing a year with COVID, and there he is leading off and hitting grand slams and 462-foot bombs,” Jennings said. “But you kind of felt with the mentality, kind of a quiet mentality, and being a strong competitor. He kind of reminds me of (Nick) Markakis in that way, that quiet leader-type guy that’s gonna win, he’s going to compete. It’s been fun to watch and take those steps.”
Jennings is reluctant to offer a comp, but he mentions a Hall of Famer when pressed to do so.
“I’ve never been good at that,” Jennings said.
“Not that he is or can be or whatever, but George Brett, there was something back there that made me think, ‘Maybe he can be this kind of player, this kind of a hitter,’ and that’s pretty big. And of course, (Corey) Seager. But growing up and watching Brett all those years, that’s not a bad guy. But I’ve never been good at the comparison things.”
Henderson was the consensus No. 1 prospect in baseball entering the season, but he was batting .199 with a .701 OPS in 48 games.
That’s when he took off. That’s when he played like Gunnar Henderson, with jaw-dropping power and the skills to drive the ball to all fields. A flick of the wrist or violent pull.
Fresh off his selection as the American League’s Player of the Week, Henderson hit a grand slam against the Blue Jays and delivered his third three-hit game in the last four. He went on a 13-for-23 tear, homering in three consecutive games. He also became the leadoff hitter against right-handed starters with Cedric Mullins on the injured list.
“You knew it was going to happen at some point, that he was going to get going, and man, did he get going,” Jennings said. “Big tip of the hat to Mike and Hyder (manager Brandon Hyde) for sticking with him and showing the confidence in him. And the hitting coaches obviously have got it going good up there. It’s been fun.”
Henderson’s season has veered but his personality remains steady.
Maybe it’s the southern upbringing or just his nature, but Henderson is unfailingly polite. The same during his major league debut, through the slumps and in the middle of his hot streak. With one person at his locker or a group.
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir,” Jennings said with a laugh.
“You know, that’s something we really stressed throughout our whole system is the character, the makeup of the kid. The strong competitors. And I think seeing him at that age, you could see that in him. That was one of the big things for us, that this guy is a quality makeup kid, on and off the field.
“There were never questions about anything. He was just a quality human being.”