His time to shine: Gunnar Henderson to rep O's at Futures Game this weekend

When Orioles prospect Gunnar Henderson plays for the American League team tomorrow night in Los Angeles in the All-Star Futures Game, he’ll be going to a place where some current young O’s stars have already been. Not Los Angeles, but to a Futures Game.

He’ll represent the Orioles and be among the best prospects in the game in a national showcase.

Catcher Adley Rutschman went 0-for-1 with a walk for the American League in its 8-3 loss to the National League last summer in Denver, but Rutschman said the experience was memorable for him and no doubt will be for Henderson, too.

“From the experience of just flying there to, you know, getting settled into the hotel, to meeting all the guys, showing up at a big league ballpark, they did a great job from start to finish. Got to meet Ken Griffey Jr. and a lot of cool people. From start to finish it was just a great experience,” Rutschman said.

And so was the game as well.

“Really cool,” said Rutschman. “Caught a lot of new arms. Got to see and face Max Meyer again. Yeah, it was really fun. It’s an interesting vibe, because it is competitive but it’s also like a great experience, so you are kind of trying to balance both.”

Rutschman has taken note of Henderson’s strong season and remembers being with him at the alternate site camp at Double-A Bowie in 2020 when the minor league season was cancelled due to the pandemic.

“I have seen him a lot. Being at Bowie with him and instructs. And just following his minor league career. I mean he’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal worker and he’s going to be a really good player,” he said.

A couple of years before Rutschman played in the Futures Games, Ryan Mountcastle was on the field at the FG. That was at Washington’s Nationals Park in 2018 when the format was still the United States team against the World squad, and the USA team won that game 10-6 as soon-to-be Oriole Yusniel Díaz homered twice.

“It was awesome,” Mountcastle said of the Futures Game experience. “I mean, there are a bunch of people and fans there, almost like a big league game. For Gunnar to be going there now I’m excited for him. Hope he does well and he definitely deserves it.”

What should Gunnar expect?

“Some free stuff,” Mountcastle said with a laugh. “Just to get out there and play on a big league field is I’m sure a dream of his. I think he’ll have a great experience and it will be awesome for him. I’ve gotten to meet him a couple of times. Great kid. Super humble, really hard worker and I’m sure he’ll be up here in no time.”

Henderson’s great 2022 season has seen him shoot up the prospect rankings. In the mid-season updated top 100 rating by MLBPipeline.com, he is ranked No. 5, and he is No. 7 on the new and updated Baseball America top 100.

Over 79 games between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, he is batting .294/.428/.540/.968 with 69 runs, 16 doubles, six triples, 13 homers and 54 RBIs. He has walked 63 times and fanned 74.

Some offseason and spring training tweaks helped him hit balls better at the top of the zone and cut down on some swings and misses. His plate discipline has been elite this year.

Is that his biggest gain from last year?

“Yes, that and the ability to make contact on some pitches in some areas that he struggled with in the past,” Orioles director of player development Matt Blood told me this week. “He has taken it very seriously and this is something we emphasize throughout the minor leagues and something we train on every single day and he’s taken it to heart. He’s worked very hard on learning to identify the right pitches to hit and right pitches to lay off. Nice to see it paying off in performance.

“And he has worked very hard on his swing and his swing path and how he enters the zone and making himself more able to square up more pitches and it’s showing in his contact rates. He has improved his entry into the zone which is giving him a better chance to get the barrel to more pitches. More different types of pitches too.”

The Orioles look at Gunnar and still see a future shortstop.

“Great athlete with instincts, range, arm strength and good hands. A premium defensive player,” said Blood.

So the organization believes he can play MLB-caliber defense at short?

“He is a shortstop,” Blood said simply.

Henderson started the year at Bowie and was promoted to Triple-A on June 8. There, manager Buck Britton has seen a player maturing and growing more into his body. He just turned 21 June 29.

“His overall game has come together,” Britton said Thursday during a phone interview. “He was super young when I first saw him at the alt site and he was still figuring out his body. Just a big, young kid. But he’s starting to physically turn into a man. And he’s been really good. His defense has gotten a lot better. He is more consistent with the routine play and he has the big arm and the speed.

“On the offensive side, this guy has a chance to be a big-time offensive player for us. He obviously has the power to left-center field and he is starting to learn how to pull the ball in the air a little more. When he is going well, there is power to that opposite gap.

“He has really taken hold of the swing decision thing. He is really hunting for pitches over the middle of the plate, especially early in the at-bat. Even if that means taking some tough pitches early and falling behind in the count. He is starting to trust himself a little bit more with two strikes. So you don’t see that panic, when he gets 0-1, he still believes that even with two strikes he can get a pitch to do damage with, so that’s been real encouraging to see. And what it leads to ultimately is more consistent hard contact.”

Britton feels Henderson will be a great Futures Game rep for the Orioles, a young, up-and-coming star who handles himself well on the off the field.

“The on-field skills aside – this guy has a chance to be a special player – the human being that’s about to show up to that Futures Game, people will be impressed with that. He is so polite, I have to tell him to stop calling me sir. He’s the whole package as a teammate and person,” Britton said.


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