Gunnar Henderson’s little brother, Cade, spent June 3 in his Orioles pajamas, waiting until the late hours of that Alabama night to hear whether the outfit proved to be a good-luck charm to get his favorite team to draft his older brother.
“That’s who’s gonna get him,” the 12-year-old Cade said then.
It proved to be an accurate attire choice. That night, the Orioles made Henderson the No. 42 overall pick, the first of the second round. After signing him to a reported $2.3 million bonus Tuesday, the Orioles introduced Henderson on Wednesday, having him field grounders at shortstop and participate in the Orioles’ batting practice before an in-game introduction.
His signing came the same day the Orioles welcomed first overall pick Adley Rutschman to Camden Yards, as Mike Elias has now signed the first two players he drafted as Baltimore’s executive vice president/general manager. With the team announcing during Wednesday’s game that third-rounder Zach Watson signed, the Orioles have signed all of their draft picks from the first 10 rounds.
“This is another big day and a big week for the future of this franchise,” Elias said. “This is the type of talent that we want to be bringing in to an organization that’s in the process of adding the best young players that we can.”
Fittingly for Cade, Gunnar’s welcoming to Baltimore coincided with the San Diego Padres and Manny Machado being in town. Machado, the longtime Orioles infielder, was the player who caused Cade to become a fan of the team. Even after the Orioles traded Machado to the Los Angeles Dodgers last summer, Cade kept rooting for the black and orange.
“He still stuck with ’em, and he’s been a fan ever since,” Henderson said.
Henderson’s older brother, Jackson, will be a senior next season for an Auburn baseball team coming off a College World Series appearance. Henderson passed on an Auburn offer to join the Orioles’ system, costing himself a chance to be Jackson’s teammate for the first time since Henderson’s freshman year at John T. Morgan Academy. But he said Jackson’s support simplified the decision.
They grew up competing against each other in soccer, football and basketball, and their father, Allen, built a baseball field behind their Selma, Ala., house. Henderson credits those youth sporting events for building his self-motivation.
“Just growing up together and competing, it just instilled a great work ethic,” Henderson said. “And then my mom and dad teaching me to never give up and work your hardest and that’s the only thing that will stay constant, because you can’t control what else happens, but you can always work your hardest.”
That hard work led to a .559/.641/1.225 batting line his senior season with 11 home runs and 28 steals in 32 games. The 6-foot-3 Henderson received a handful of first-round projections, but he was still there for the taking when the Orioles opened the second round.
“We stack up the board with draft magnets in order of talent, and he was the best talent left on our board, I think by a good bit,” said Elias, who figured he saw Henderson about 30 times last summer as the Houston Astros assistant general manager. “It was just a matter of whether we were gonna be able to sign him with the assigned value of that pick, and obviously, we figured out a way to make it work. Very happy that we did so.”
Henderson and Watson’s signings leave the Orioles with all but three of their first 34 picks signed, with 11th-rounder Andrew Daschbach, 13th-rounder Dan Hammer and 29th-rounder Houston Roth remaining on the board. The Orioles entered the draft with the second-largest bonus pool of any team ($13.82 million), which accounts for a team’s picks in the first 10 rounds. Watson signed for exactly his slot value of $780,400, a team source confirmed. So, they have saved about $345,300 on the slot value of their signings thus far, which can be used above slot to spend on their remaining unsigned draftees.
Henderson was adamant that he plans to try to stick at shortstop, though Elias has said the team believes his bat would still profile should he require a move to third base. Elias said Henderson, as most prep prospects tend to do, will begin his career in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League, likely spending his full 2019 season there.
His age plays a factor in that, too. Henderson celebrates his 18th birthday Saturday. His big plan is a simple one.
“Spend it playing baseball,” Henderson said. “That’s about it. It’s the best one.”