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Baltimore Orioles

Orioles minor league report: Top prospect Gunnar Henderson reaches significant benchmark for potential call-up

Adley Rutschman’s preseason tricep strain prevented the Orioles from capitalizing on an aspect of Major League Baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement. They’ve given themselves the opportunity to not let that pass them by with a second No. 1 overall prospect.

Including Tuesday, there are 44 days left in the regular season, meaning if Baltimore were to promote top prospect Gunnar Henderson at any point from now, he would end the season with fewer than 45 days of major league service time — and likely fewer than 130 at-bats — and thus hold onto his rookie eligibility through the offseason. The Orioles would then retain the chance at what the new CBA terms “Prospect Promotion Incentive” draft picks, should Henderson be included on next season’s opening day roster, while also adding him to this year’s playoff race.

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Henderson, a 21-year-old infielder, has hit .298 with a .958 OPS this year between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, now playing all four infield spots after the Tides deployed him at first and second twice each last week. Over the past two seasons, he’s taken only one at-bat against a pitcher younger than him. In it, he homered. His 263 Triple-A plate appearances, in which he’s hit .289/.388/.520 with 11 home runs, are 25 more than Rutschman had with the Tides across 2021 and 2022 before the Orioles called him up in May.

Orioles prospect Gunnar Henderson, a 21-year-old infielder, has hit .298 with a .958 OPS this year between Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk, now playing all four infield spots after the Tides deployed him at first and second twice each last week.

Henderson’s game is not without warts. His strikeout rate jumped with his move to Triple-A, though it’s still an improvement on his performance across three levels in 2021. He had his struggles against left-handers in Bowie, but he’s improved as he’s experienced more left-on-left matchups with Norfolk. He’s unquestionably a player who could benefit the Orioles, who have gotten little production from second and third base in particular, as they fight for a playoff spot over the next six weeks.

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And now, he could do so without leveraging potential future benefits. Henderson will go into next season as a rookie, and if he makes Baltimore’s opening day roster, his top prospect status means the Orioles could earn extra draft picks in coming years depending on how he performs in major award voting. Executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ affinity for draft picks is well established.

His first three in Baltimore were used on Rutschman, the catcher whose arrival seemingly jump-started the Orioles’ playoff run; Henderson, who quickly succeeded Rutschman as the game’s top prospect; and Kyle Stowers, the power-hitting outfielder who had his contract selected last week. With utility man Terrin Vavra reinstated from the paternity list Monday, four of the organization’s top young hitters could share a lineup in the near future should the Orioles choose to promote Henderson.

With a benchmark cleared, all that’s stopping them is themselves.

Each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in the Orioles’ prospect ranks and hand out some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.

Joey Ortiz started this year slowly upon his return from a shoulder injury but has been a force since July, hitting .361 with 11 home runs and an OPS of 1.088 in his past 41 games.

1. Double-A Bowie infielder Joey Ortiz

The Orioles’ 2019 draft didn’t end with Stowers. In the fourth round, they took Ortiz, a shortstop out of New Mexico State. Known more for his glove, he used 2020′s lost minor league season to add strength, and it seemed to pay off in 2021 before a torn labrum in his left shoulder ended his season. He started this year slowly upon his return but has been a force since July, hitting .361 with 11 home runs and an OPS of 1.088 in his past 41 games. That includes another three home runs this week, one of them a grand slam as he slugged .739. It’s easy to envision a promotion for Henderson sending Ortiz to Triple-A to finish the year.

2. Triple-A Norfolk left-hander Drew Rom

Between graduations and dropouts, only four of Baseball America’s top 30 Orioles prospects predate Elias. With Rom’s promotion last week, all of them are at Triple-A. In his Norfolk debut, Rom allowed a run in 4 2/3 innings, working around eight base runners by tying his career high of nine strikeouts. Baltimore’s No. 18 prospect has a 4.24 ERA in his age-22 season with 110 strikeouts in 87 innings.

3. Low-A Delmarva outfielder Jud Fabian

When the Orioles traded relievers Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott to the Miami Marlins late in spring training, Elias called the 67th overall draft pick the most “salient” part of the return. In his first week with an Orioles full-season affiliate, Fabian, taken with that selection last month, had nine hits in 21 at-bats for a .429 average, including six doubles and a home run. The former Florida star also worked five walks while striking out only twice, finishing the week with a 1.396 OPS. Fellow 2022 draftees Dylan Beavers, the 33rd overall pick, and 14th-round selection Adam Retzbach also posted an OPS of at least .976 for the Shorebirds.

4. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Jean Pinto

Acquired before the 2021 season from the Los Angeles Angels as half of the return for shortstop José Iglesias, Pinto was a breakout pitcher on the lower levels of the Orioles’ system a year ago. Although he hasn’t necessarily matched that performance this season, there have been signs that make him worthy of his backend top 30 status. The latest came Thursday as he struck out 11 of the 18 batters he faced over five innings of one-run ball. Some rough outings have spoiled his overall numbers, but he’s allowed one earned run or fewer in all but three of his 17 appearances since the start of May.

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5. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Ignacio Feliz

The strikeout dominance Feliz flashed early in the season returned last week as he struck out 10 over 5 2/3 innings in a start Tuesday, then added two more punchouts in a two-inning save Sunday. Feliz trails only Grayson Rodriguez, DL Hall (the organization’s top two pitching prospects) and Noah Denoyer in strikeout rate among Orioles minor league pitchers with at least 50 innings, while Hall is the only pitcher in the system with more strikeouts.

In the most significant sign of progress as pitcher Grayson Rodriguez works his way back from the Grade 2 right lat muscle strain that disrupted his dominant season at Norfolk, he is scheduled to throw a bullpen, live batting practice session and a simulated game over the course of this week.

The top prospect not featured so far

As speculation continues to surround Henderson, it’s once again beginning to build for Rodriguez, the game’s top pitching prospect. In the most significant sign of progress as he works his way back from the Grade 2 right lat muscle strain that disrupted his dominant season at Norfolk, Rodriguez is scheduled to throw a bullpen session, live batting practice and a simulated game over the course of this week while in Sarasota, Florida. Each step forward feels like another one closer to the majors, though the Orioles will understandably be cautious with Rodriguez and his prized right arm.

International acquisition of the week

After dominating at Delmarva through the first two months of the season, outfielder Isaac Bellony has struggled to have the same success at Aberdeen. But perhaps this week was a sign that he’s beginning to find his footing. He recorded four hits in four games, matching his total from his previous 15 games. Thursday, he tripled and homered in the same game, flashing the skill set that allowed him to hit for the cycle in May while still with the Shorebirds.

The best former top-30 prospect of the week

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Henderson has moved around Norfolk’s infield of late, but Cadyn Grenier has been doing it all year. When Henderson started a second straight game at second base Sunday, Grenier was his double-play partner, getting his first start at shortstop since June 3. Since Henderson and Jordan Westburg were promoted to Bowie in early June, the 25-year-old Grenier, drafted 37th overall in 2018, has played the other three infield spots and some left field. Last week, he made an impact with his bat, too, slugging .786 thanks to a pair of home runs that doubled his total for the season.

Time to give some shine to …

Taken with the Orioles’ final pick of last year’s draft, outfielder Trendon Craig was an intriguing enough prospect who signed for a bonus of $250,000, the second-most of any 20th-round pick in that draft and Baltimore’s largest bonus in its class among players taken after the eighth round. After a slow start to his first pro season, Craig has proven worthy of that interest. With a .368/.429/.474 slash line last week for Aberdeen, the 22-year-old is hitting .300 with a .394 on-base percentage since the start of June between Delmarva and Aberdeen.

Short-season snippets

First overall draft pick Jackson Holliday hit his first professional home run and drew eight walks while striking out once to post a batting line of .385/.591/.692 in the Florida Complex League. … Second baseman Aron Estrada’s breakout season in the Dominican Summer League continued as he doubled three times among four hits in nine at-bats, walking four times to two strikeouts. The 17-year-old product of Venezuela is hitting .368 with a 1.053 OPS.

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