As Orioles infield struggles, promoting Gunnar Henderson is the obvious move | ANALYSIS

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CLEVELAND — It didn’t raise his below-average OPS, but the second-inning at-bat for Ryan Mountcastle at least produced a run. The looping fly ball to right field backed up Cleveland Guardians outfielder Oscar Gonzalez enough to allow Ramón Urías to tag up and score from third.

Such positive outcomes have been few and far between for Mountcastle over the last two months, and the Orioles first baseman isn’t alone. Across the infield, Baltimore’s offensive production has been lackluster of late. Over the last seven games, Mountcastle holds a .514 OPS — and that’s better than any of his fellow infielders.


Jorge Mateo has struck out eight times in his last seven games. Terrin Vavra has one hit in his last 18 at-bats. Urías managed the lone hit Tuesday but has a .503 OPS in seven games. Rougned Odor has two hits in 20 at-bats.

The Orioles need a lift, some stimulant to help an anemic infield generate some sort of momentum at the plate. And while manager Brandon Hyde has tried dropping Mountcastle further down the lineup as a way “to take some pressure off him,” there could be an answer in top prospect Gunnar Henderson, who is expected to join the taxi squad along with left-hander DL Hall on Wednesday in Cleveland and could be promoted to the majors when rosters expand Thursday.


In the calculus is concern regarding Henderson’s strikeout rate, which has risen to 26.9% entering Tuesday at the highest level of the minors. But even if Henderson, 21, struggles to immediately adapt to the majors, it’s not as if the players he might replace in the Orioles lineup haven’t struggled on their own, either.

In Tuesday night’s series-opening 5-1 loss to the Guardians, the Orioles’ infield again scuffled. In fact, the whole offense did as Baltimore was held to one hit at Progressive Field.

“We had a 1-0 lead, Spenser [Watkins] was pitching well,” Hyde said, “so you want to add on there, and we just didn’t get any more runs.”

Meanwhile, Henderson outhit the Orioles by himself with the Tides, strengthening his case for a promotion as early as this week, when rosters expand by two. In 65 Triple-A games, Henderson holds an OPS of .894. He’s been in the minors long enough that he can maintain his rookie eligibility next season, which means if he’s included on the opening day roster next year, the Orioles would receive “Prospect Promotion Incentive” draft picks, according to the new terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

Triple-A Norfolk infielder Gunnar Henderson, pictured June 28, recorded three singles and two stolen bases while playing second base for the Tides on Tuesday, continuing his show of versatility in the field.

Henderson recorded three singles and two stolen bases while playing second base for the Tides on Tuesday, continuing his show of versatility in the field. He could play anywhere in the Orioles’ infield — and perhaps provide the spark the offense is searching for.

Part of the reason Mountcastle found himself in a position to drive in Urías is because Hyde dropped him as low as seventh in the order for the first time this season.

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“He’s scuffling lately, overswinging, trying to do too much,” Hyde said. “Trying to give him a little bit of a breather.”

As the cleanup hitter in Houston, with Cedric Mullins, Anthony Santander and Adley Rutschman on base for Mountcastle, “he was just a young guy trying to drive in runs instead of letting the game come to him a little bit,” Hyde said.


This hasn’t been new for Mountcastle, despite a June in which he posted a .959 OPS. When the calendar flipped, the struggles returned. And as he struggled, his chase rate increased to a career-high 40.2%. He has struck out 51 times in his last 48 games, dating to July 1.

So while it was just a sacrifice fly in the second inning of an eventual loss, perhaps a productive at-bat is something of a win for Mountcastle.

“Not swinging at good pitches,” Mountcastle said. “But lately I feel like I’ve had some bad at-bats here or there, but I feel like for the most part I’ve been having some pretty good at-bats, and either not hitting it hard or when I do, it seems like it’s always finding somebody. It’s unfortunate, but I’m going to try to keep growing and working hard at it.”

Having Mountcastle return to something that resembles what he produced in June would go a long way in helping the Orioles in their push for a wild-card spot. But improvement for Mountcastle alone wouldn’t solve the problem for Baltimore’s infield, which has three starters (Odor, Mateo and Urías) with below-average OPS+ rankings entering Tuesday.

The infield needs to find life at the plate if the Orioles are to make a run for the postseason in September, and there’s a 21-year-old raking in Triple-A who could help. It’s not a guarantee Henderson will transition smoothly, but at this point, the top prospect in baseball is worth a try.