For players drafted in 2019, losing the minor league experience this year was difficult. However, Gunnar Henderson tried to make the most of a challenging situation.
Henderson, who’s the sixth-ranked Orioles prospect by MLB Pipeline, was the team’s second-round draft choice last year. The 19-year-old shortstop has played just 29 professional games at Gulf Coast.
Henderson, who hit .259 with a home run and 11 RBIs at Gulf Coast, returned to the Ed Smith Stadium complex last month for the Instructional League.
He impressed Oriole officials with his play in Sarasota after he was added to the 60-man player pool at the Bowie alternate site.
At Bowie, Henderson faced pitchers with major league experience.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I enjoyed every bit of it, getting to pick the guy’s brains, being able to see what they took in from years past. You’re seeing what helps them be successful.
“That’s what I want to do in the near future, just being able to accomplish that and put myself in the best position to be able to do that.”
The pitchers with major league experience impressed him, but he wasn’t in awe.
“Whenever you’re at the field, you’ve got to take every rep serious,” he said. “I learned at the plate, you’ve got to be able to attack the better pitches earlier in the count or you’ll just sit there and try to hit the pitcher’s pitch instead of getting what you can do damage with.
“Defensively, it’s just a lot of repetition, just being able to see balls being hit harder off the bat. I felt like I could hang around with them, and I showed them I could play.”
Matt Blood, the Orioles’ director of player development, liked what he saw from Henderson.
“I saw tremendous growth at a rapid pace,” Blood said. “He came in seemingly young and overmatched to the alternate site, yet he had a mature and determined demeanor about him. He caught up pretty quick to the competition he was facing, which was higher level, impressive arms. He fit right in, and by the last three weeks of it, he was one of the best players there.”
From Bowie, it was on to Sarasota for the Instructional League and games against other teams.
“At Bowie, you get one, and if you’re lucky, maybe two pitches to hit [in an at-bat],” Henderson said. “If not, you’re sitting there trying to fight off good pitches to hopefully get another. At instructs, you could miss one, and you would probably get another good pitch to hit in the at-bat, you kind of get bailed out a little bit.
“There’s still some good pitchers at instructs. The pitchers at Bowie, I guess, were a little bit more experienced at how to pitch … You could tell there was a little less experience there. Even for me, I haven’t played as long as they have, and you see what experience can do for you.”
Blood liked Henderson’s versatility, noting that in Sarasota, he played every position but pitcher, catcher and right field.
“He was one of the youngest players there, and he looked like one of the veterans, very competitive at-bats,” Blood said.
“He’s the kind of guy that the other players notice and want to be like and want to be around. He’s a great person and a great player and has a great work ethic.”
After he returned home from Sarasota, Henderson took time off, but he’s back to working out, preparing for whatever kind of minor league season there is in 2021.
“I started working out last week,” Henderson said. “I’m going to try to go five days a week, trying to get the strongest and fastest I can. I think I’ll start throwing in the next two weeks, start off light and try to get my arm really, really strong and be able to throw it as hard as I want to. I’ll probably start hitting in the middle to the end of December. Then, I’ll really get it going from then on.”
When Henderson signed with the Orioles in June 2019, he charmed those at his introductory press conference by pointing out that his younger brother Cade was already an Orioles fan. Wearing Orioles pajamas, Cade was excited that his big brother was chosen by his favorite team.
Now 13, Cade has outgrown those PJs,and is wearing extra Orioles shorts and shirts Gunnar brings home.
On Tuesday night, Cade played in his first basketball game of the season, and his team won.
“He’ll be a good power hitter,” Gunnar said. “He’s really strong for his age. He’ll be a really good baseball player. I think he’ll stick at short. Hopefully, we can get him to the Orioles as well.”