When Jordan Westburg saw himself in Low-A Delmarva’s lineup at third base, he felt no bitterness. Versatility, he believes, will only help him. But he also knew it meant another opportunity for Gunnar Henderson to show out at shortstop.
“There was that competition every single day between me and him,” Westburg said. “My goal was to not let him play short, and his goal was to not let me play short. We just made each other better.”
For now, that competition is taking a hiatus. Earlier this week, the Orioles promoted Westburg, their No. 11 prospect per Baseball America, to High-A Aberdeen, providing he and No. 7 prospect Henderson the opportunity to play shortstop daily rather than split time at the position.
But Westburg, 22, thinks they’ll be teammates again in the near future. He earned his promotion by hitting .366/.484/.592 for the Shorebirds, exchanging division Player of the Week honors with Henderson as the 19-year-old hit .337/.402/.685 with eight home runs entering Thursday.
With Delmarva, Westburg made 11 starts at third base and eight at shortstop, where he’s played in each of his first two games at Aberdeen. But his favorite position might be next to Henderson.
“Gunnar’s my guy,” Westburg said. “Me being a few years older than him, I tried to give him some pointers here and there, but he’s so naturally gifted and just such a freak for his age that a lot of times, you just enjoy sitting back and watching him do what he does.
“I have a feeling that it’s not going to be too much longer before I’ll be playing with him again.”
Henderson and Westburg were respectively the Orioles’ second player taken in the previous two drafts, but they had differing experiences immediately after. While Henderson was able to begin his professional career shortly following the June 2019 draft, Westburg’s selection came amid the coronavirus pandemic, meaning this season’s games are his first in the organization.
Still, he referred to his past year with Baltimore as “awesome,” noting he got to participate in the club’s fall instructional league while many other minor leaguers did not, then got to be around the big league team during spring training. Assigned to Low-A in his first taste of professional baseball, Westburg needed less than a month to perform worthy of a promotion.
“They do a really good job of just challenging us as players,” Westburg said. “I never feel unprepared when I step into the box as a hitter, and I never feel unprepared when I’m on the field, no matter at what position.
“The Orioles, where we’re at as an organization, do a fantastic job of if somebody’s showing that they can play, that they’re going to challenge them at the next level and give them that opportunity to move as quickly as they possibly can. Especially being an infielder, I feel like there’s no better organization to be with right now.”
Along with Henderson, Westburg is part of an infusion of middle-infield talent into the organization over the past couple of years. That has left him needing to play positions other than the shortstop spot he primarily handled at Mississippi State before the Orioles took him 30th overall last year.
“If that change ever does happen where I become full time at third base, I have no doubt in my mind that I’ll be able to play that really well and I’ll be extremely comfortable over there,” Westburg said. “I think that just comes from me being a competitor. I want to play. I want to win. Any opportunity that opens up, I’m gonna go for it, even if that’s not on the infield. I feel like I’m a very athletic guy. I feel like I can use that athleticism to be versatile. Any opportunity that presents itself, I’m open to that challenge, and I’m open to fill that void.”
If there’s one flaw to be pointed to in Westburg’s first professional month, it’s his 27% strikeout rate through 100 plate appearances, but Delmarva hitting coach Patrick Jones said he doesn’t see it as a point of concern.
“He’s very disciplined,” Jones said. “He’s very routine-oriented. He’s someone who’s very, very consistent and diligent about their game preparation, and for him, it’s been a consistency thing. Even when he’s struggled, the times that he has — which hasn’t been for very long — he never hit the panic button. He never changed anything. He just continued to have his routine and continue to have a good mindset at the plate, have that confidence that he always has, and just trust himself.”
That head space allowed Westburg to quickly advance from the first-place Shorebirds to the first-place IronBirds. He looks forward to continuing his climb to Baltimore, and as his fellow prospects do the same, he said there will be “a lot to look forward to here in the future.”
“It’s off-the-charts excitement,” Westburg said. “We don’t only have good players, but we have great teams. We have great chemistry at all the teams it seems like, at least in what I’ve gotten to experience, and that’s only going to translate into wins once everybody’s moving up through the ranks.
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“As soon as we get these young guys up to the big leagues, there’s already that chemistry between them, and that’s just going to translate to wins hopefully in the big leagues.”