Henderson hops on caravan before heading to first major league camp

Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson has attained top prospect status by checking all the boxes.

This morning, he spent hours packing them.

The team’s caravan made a stop at the Maryland Food Bank, where Orioles players, employees, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and manager Brandon Hyde served as volunteers sorting and boxing donated items for distribution to food pantries across the state.

Henderson is flying down to Sarasota on Sunday as an early arrival to spring training, but he had other training to do today in Halethorpe.

“It’s been really awesome to be able to give back to the community, just being here in Baltimore before the season and get some meals out to families in need,” said Henderson, who was accompanied by teammates Ryan Mountcastle, Kyle Stowers and Ryan McKenna.

Henderson made his major league debut on Aug. 31, his first hit a home run that night in Cleveland. He started 18 games at third base, six at shortstop and three at second base.

Pre-camp projections put Henderson at third base on Opening Day, with Jorge Mateo returning to shortstop, where he won a Fielding Bible Award.

“I feel like it will be on the left side somewhere,” Henderson said. “I don’t know what position it will be, but just taking reps at both and whichever they put me at is where I’ll play.”

Henderson appeared in 34 games, maintaining his rookie status this season, and batted .259/.348/.440 with seven doubles, one triple, four home runs, 18 RBIs and 16 walks. He heads to major league camp for the first time knowing that he has a job, an everyday role and enormous expectations placed upon him at age 21.

“My biggest goal is just to win every game and make a playoff run, so whatever comes with it comes with it,” he said.

“It definitely takes a little pressure off, as if you’re trying to make the team, but I’m still going in there with that mindset of trying to make the team because I like being able to keep going out there and proving myself, and I like to just go out there and play as hard as I can and do all the right things.”

An offseason in Alabama was spent mostly with work done against left-handed pitching, which limited Henderson to three hits in 26 plate appearances. He went 27-for-93 against right-handers and slashed .290/.377/.495.

“I felt like I just needed to see it more,” Henderson said. “Going through a smaller high school, we didn’t really see many lefties, so just being able to see it and get my body used to it, I feel really confident against it now.”

Henderson said he knew what had to be done and attacked it through hitting sessions with his older brother, Jackson, who played baseball at Auburn University.

“It was pretty cold and rainy for a lot,” Henderson said, “so I got to spend a lot of time in the cage with him and get some good work in.”

Henderson also participated in the 2020 caravan, originally a three-day winter tour that has expanded. So have expectations for the team’s success after it finished above .500 last year.

“It’s really awesome to look back and just see how things have changed, and for the better,” he said. “It’s been really special to see, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the future.”

The playoff talk in 2022 didn’t gain traction until later in the summer. The Orioles were picked again by various outlets to lose 100 or more games and challenge for the first-overall selection in the draft.

The bar is raised this year. They expect to contend and, at the least, secure a wild card spots. Elias has marked it as one of the goals.

“Last year was a great experience,” Henderson said. “We were three games back late into September, so it was really awesome being able to go through that just being able to experience that and have that drive for this year.”

The Orioles assisted today in packing 11,000 pounds of food, which provides 9,166 meals. Their presence was appreciated.

“It’s huge,” said Maryland Food Bank President and CEO Carmen Del Guercio. “There’s value in so many ways. Inside the building, it raises the energy of our staff, to have people come in here. And seeing the Orioles, obviously they’re a very popular topic these days in terms of looking forward to the season, but more importantly, it just continues to allow us to elevate the issue of food insecurity in our state.

“One in three Marylanders (is) having a hard time making ends meet. Inflation is putting more and more pressure on families. So, our ability to again continue to get that message out, to know that we continue to need help, both donations of food and dollars to help us ensure that we get food out to our communities.”

Elias and Hyde met with the local media this morning on the sixth floor of the warehouse before boarding a bus to the Food Bank. Elias expressed confidence again that the rebuild process is behind the Orioles.

“We’ve got an incredible chance now to be a very, very competitive team for years,” he said.

“We’ve got a high anticipation for spring training this year. First of all, it’s going to be a normal spring training, which we haven’t had in a while, but also, we’ve got a real good team, a real good roster, and we’ve got some hopes of making the playoffs this year. This spring is going to be really important for us. I’m excited to get down there.”

Elias said again that he could make more roster moves before pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 15 and also later in the spring.

“We’re kind of in the mode of taking advantage of opportunities,” Elias said. “There are quality free agents remaining. We’re kind of staying in touch with them and monitoring how their markets are looking, and if something seems like it will boost our team, I think we’re in position to still make a move.”

Elias also is maintaining contact with other executives on possible trade moves, but he add, “I do feel like if we end up with this group in Sarasota in 10 days, we’re fine with that, but we’re still pursing opportunities on the market.”

The rotation seems wide open beyond Kyle Gibson and left-hander Cole Irvin. Grayson Rodriguez is expected to join them.

Elias estimated that there are 12 pitchers in the mix for starting jobs in what’s likely to be a five-man rotation. The club wants DL Hall to stay in that role, but Elias isn’t ready to say whether the lefty would be optioned to Triple-A if unable to make the rotation in camp.

However the roster shakes out, Elias is happy to set his goals much higher than in previous years since his hiring in November 2018.

“This is honestly the first spring training that I’ve been standing here openly talking about the playoffs, so I think that’s a big deal,” Elias said. “We knew we had talent going into last year, but the way that the team materialized and congealed and just kind of clicked on a clubhouse level, you just never know how that’s going to go.

“We’ve been very strategic with everything we’ve done, we’ve been very consistent and deliberate, and now we’re at a point where our focus has turned into getting into the postseason in October. Very competitive league right now, so we’re going to be in a battle with a lot of teams, both in our division and then in terms of, if we’re in a wild card race, there’s a lot of good-looking teams out there in other divisions.

“Excited for the players, for the coaching staff. I like the versatility and the athleticism on this roster.”

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