Bowie — Gunnar Henderson had an idea. He and Joey Ortiz were working in the batting cage this offseason, the kind of run-of-the-mill process that can become monotonous even to a 20-year-old early in his professional baseball career.
“Hey, Joey,” Henderson prompted. “You wanna play a game of horse off the tee?”
Ortiz didn’t need to be pressed, setting off a friendly competition between the Orioles infield prospects. That’s the nature of their relationship: They’re friends, but they’re also teammates pushing each other toward the next level, with an eye toward Baltimore.
For now, they’re at Double-A Bowie, part of a stacked infield. During pregame warmups before the Baysox’s season opener at Prince George’s Stadium on Friday, Henderson, Ortiz and Jordan Westburg trotted out to third, short and second to field grounders. In the future — an ever-nearing future — that trio could trot out together at Camden Yards.
As the Orioles began their season in Florida against the Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore’s faces of the future began their season in Bowie. They haven’t shied away from those lofty expectations, either — the idea that they could be the saviors for a franchise mired in 100-loss seasons during its steady rebuild from the ground up.
“If we can all come up at the same time, that goal of winning the World Series, the last game of the season, is next up,” said Westburg, 23, a first-round pick in the 2020 MLB draft. “You don’t want to look at it right now because we’re at opening day in Double-A. There’s no reason to put that pressure on ourselves or start thinking about that. But ultimately, and as we start to get there, that’s gotta be our No. 1 focus.”
Before executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias arrived, Baltimore’s farm system was devoid of much middle infield talent. Adam Hall, a second-round draft pick in 2017, looks at the crop of prospects around him now and is amazed.
Hall, 22, who started in center field Friday despite his middle infield experience, is the 27th-best prospect in Baltimore’s organization, according to Baseball America. Around him in Bowie are more top players in Ortiz (No. 16), Westburg (No. 6) and Henderson (No. 4).
That influx of talent to the farm system in recent years adds pressure on them all. There are only so many positions along the infield, which prompted Hall’s bump to the outfield Friday. Henderson started at short, Ortiz at second and Westburg at third. But those players will all rotate, which Westburg considers a benefit.
“We all have different skill sets,” Westburg said. “We all realize that. We understand that all we can do to make each other better is push each other in practice, try to set the bar high.”
To Westburg, the 20-year-old Henderson is the “young buck” of the group, still gaining experience on the fly. But Henderson might also have the most power between them all. The 23-year-old Ortiz could be the best defender of the group, making plays Westburg admitted he wouldn’t in the same position. And Westburg, despite a few swings and misses, believes his ability to spray the ball to all fields sets him apart.
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It’s those different skills that help them remain friends during a push to the big leagues. They’re all hoping for an infield spot — and only one of them can play shortstop — but that versatility could land them at Oriole Park together.
The Bowie coaches lean into that competition, though, even beyond what Henderson and Ortiz do on their own in the batting cage two to three times a week.
During spring training, the prospects competed for who could have the highest exit velocity on batted balls. They participated in a home run derby using Plyo Balls — a sand-filled ball made with a PVC shell. A foam ball machine threw overly exaggerated breaking pitches to them.
“The infield guys, we’re around each other every day, and it’s great to have that bond,” Ortiz said. “The main thing I always say: Gunnar and Westburg are so good, it’s definitely nice to be able to compete with them, because it only makes me better.”
In a video conference with reporters Thursday, Elias said he believed Baltimore was “close to getting back into the fight.” As he looks around the minors, the prospects cultivated through three 100-loss seasons in four years are nearing the big leagues. Once they arrive, he hopes they’ll be ready to make an immediate impact.
That will be learned down the line, when those players prove themselves and earn those expected call-ups. But at least for now, even if those highly touted infield prospects are playing in Bowie rather than Baltimore, their minds can’t help but wander to the horizon — and what they might accomplish once there.
“We all know we can win a championship together,” Henderson said. “We all have the right mindset going into each game and each season. I feel like the group that’s coming up, we have an excellent chance to turn this thing around and bring a championship back to the Orioles.”