Jordan Westburg remembers the day on O's farm he realized "Gunnar is different"

One of the many great things about the Orioles having so many good young players is that many of them came up together. Not only are they great friends – which no doubt helps them win on the field – but they know each other’s games so well.

They can provide insights and scouting reports on each other that might rival what a scout might see or report.

Take Jordan Westburg and Gunnar Henderson. Westburg once described himself as the older brother in the relationship. Now he knows younger bro is all grown up.

The 2023 American League Rookie of the Year is now playing like a future MVP. There is little Gunnar Henderson can’t do on a baseball field. He’s doing it all this year for the Orioles, batting .274 with a .914 OPS and 10 homers. 

“It doesn’t surprise me. To me it just seems like he’s taking that natural progression,” Westburg told me over the weekend in Cincinnati. “And he’s getting older, having more experience, maturing. But his strong game has always been there. I have always had the confidence in the ability that he is showing now. So, it doesn’t surprise me.

“To me he is still the same Gunnar Henderson I played with in Double-A. Just a little bit older and more mature with more experience under his belt. I got to see everything he is doing up here in Low-A, High-A, Double-A and Triple-A. Got to see it at all the stops.

“So, when he does these things, yeah, it still wows me, but at the same time like, it checks out. Nothing new.”

And he did see Gunnar play at all those stops. The farm movement of the two players practically was identical. During the 2021 season both Westburg and Henderson started at Low-A Delmarva, moved up to High-A Aberdeen and then on to Double-A Bowie. Westburg moved up each time a few weeks before Gunnar.

The next year, in 2022, both started at Double-A and both were promoted to Triple-A on the same day, June 8.

Westburg can even cite an exact day when he truly realized that Henderson was then and would be now, a special player.

That date was April 23, 2022 and Bowie was hosting Akron. The opponent pitcher, a real good prospect, was rolling against almost everyone in the Baysox lineup that day. Almost everyone.

“I will point you to a specific game at Bowie,” recalled Westburg. “We were facing the Guardians’ Double-A (Akron) team. They had a right-handed pitcher on the mound, one of their top prospects that is hurt right now (it was Daniel Espino). He punched out the first 11 batters of that game. I was hitting second. We went nine up and nine down on punchouts.

“Hudson Haskin was leading off and I was in the two hole. Fourth inning. We both punch out for the second time. He then hangs Gunnar (batting third) one pitch and Gunnar hits a homer. Then he punched out the next guy and his outing was done.

“That right there, I was like, ‘Gunnar is different.’ He hadn’t thrown a curveball all game and was dominating with his fastball, his changeup and slider. Makes one mistake and Gunnar didn’t miss it.

“Those are the kind of things I look back and I’m like, ‘It was so obvious this was going to happen.’ He is just a different kind of ballplayer. You make a mistake to Gunnar, he doesn’t miss it. Give him an opportunity and he will seize it. That is the type of ballplayer I got to see.”

And Westburg has a good memory as Espino that day did in fact fan the first 11 Bowie batters before Henderson’s homer. The box score shows us he would strike out 14 that day over five innings. He had shoulder surgery in May of 2023, but was a top 100 pitching prospect, in fact at one time a top 20 pitching prospect.

It seems like the best players have a strong inner drive to work hard too. It’s not all about the talent. That applies to Gunnar.

“Spot on. The drive is different,” Westburg said. “Everyone is driven at this level, but he’s got an extra motor, an extra gear and it kicks in when the game starts. He steps on the field, there is a different side of him that no one gets to see.

“I would say when he walks in the building, it’s time. And when he clocks out, he’s our buddy, the same friend we’ve known, and we can go and hang out and laugh off the field. But when he clocks in, it’s work time. Kicks it up a notch when the lights come on and he steps on the field.”

And while he and Henderson were always pushing to become major league players when they played for the Shorebirds, IronBirds, Baysox and Tides, Westburg said they never really discussed what a future could look like together on the Orioles. It's just not what they did. Or their personalities. 

“But there was a shared dream. A shared idea. A shared motivation. Want maybe, to get up here and succeed and help this organization and be all that we could be.

“Gunnar is obviously showing it right now. He’s the catalyst of this team. He’s the sparkplug. He’s the guy that we lean on every single night. He doesn’t get days off. He plugs in there like he’s the modern-day Cal Ripken essentially. That is how we’ve viewed it,” said Westburg.

On Friday Henderson was named the AL’s Player of the Month for March/April. Henderson hit his 10th homer of this year on April 29, becoming the youngest player in MLB history (at 22 years, 306 days) to hit 10 before May 1.

The accolades and attention are pouring in for him and it's all deserved.

Beyond bringing the Orioles speed on the bases, power at the plate and great defense with a big arm at shortstop, Henderson is also becoming the leader of the Orioles. Westburg sees that process as ongoing.

“I think he is growing into one (a leader),” he said. “He’s so young. I think he’s learning and having veteran guys around him is great. He’s never going to be a vocal leader, I don’t think, maybe he will be. But he is a guy that shows up and shows younger guys by acts, not by words. ‘This is how it’s done. This is how serious you have to take it.’ I think he is getting there. I wouldn’t be surprised if a year from now, maybe not even that long, that we look at him as the leader of this clubhouse.”

If a player could actually have an MVP candidacy, maybe Gunnar has one. Not of his doing, he never brings up such talk, but others do. Like national commentators and analysts.

Westburg could see an MVP in Henderson’s future.

“I never doubted he could do these things. Now he’s showing everybody that he can. It’s early and he would say that too. But I wouldn’t be surprised that we look up late this season and he’s No. 1 on that poll.”

Westburg has seen the show in Salisbury, Aberdeen, Bowie and Norfolk. And now Baltimore.

Nice moment: On Friday the MASN cameras found Henderson sharing a word with Reds shortstop Elly De La Cruz as two of the game's best young players came together. Click here for that. 




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