While it’s true the Baltimore Orioles have top-ranked prospects anchoring their battery, it’s not a secret that the depth fueling the rebuild is under question.
Critics allege that once catcher and top overall pick in 2019 Adley Rutschman who joins #1 ranked pitcher Grayson Rodriguez in the bigs sometime in the next 2 seasons that the farm will go back to middling and the pipeline will dry up a bit. Those observers are flatly incorrect and it’s my belief that the best track to MLB stardom in the Orioles organization is the future Shortstop and 3rd baseman respectively, Gunnar Henderson who is 20, and Coby Mayo, just 19.
I can recall fantasizing just a few seasons ago what it would be like having a pair of power-hitting middle infielders next to each other in the prime of their careers. When Schoop zoomed upward through the system matching his friend Manny Machado in terms of potential and strength it seemed I was getting my wish. Their time together was successful but short-lived and I’d be lying if I said I got what I wanted out of them as a double play pairing. It wasn’t enough.
Watching Schoop’s maturation as a ballplayer, he probably did not end up with the counting stats or contributions I saw for him as a young Oriole. But in the young pair of Henderson and Mayo, who I both watch with great attention, I see the potential for something more. Superstar potential. I’m taking Tatis, Soto, Yelich, Trout type players who thrive in the spotlight and lead leagues in baseball ability.
Why They’ll Succeed
There are several reasons that I project superstardom for these guys. First of all, they’re already excellent at baseball and have been ranked among the best players in their age/year since little league. The Orioles system ranking reflects that coaches, teachers, and instructors can maximize their players’ potential and identify the routes to success. There have been big moments for both players despite limited opportunities due to Covid, injuries, and other factors beyond their control.
Henderson led his rookie league team to their division title in 2019 at age 18 and Mayo assaulted the same level’s pitching to the tune of a 1.571 OPS before beginning his climb to A level Delmarva. His adjustment to affiliated ball has come with a .318 avg and 12 XBH in 22 games. There is nothing he does on offense that doesn’t impress. Bat speeds and exit velocities consistently in triple digits are one thing. Distance and launch angle are more factors that portend future results, but what I saw when I watched Mayo closely this year constitutes high-level baseball acumen.
Despite long limbs, Coby was able to make very difficult in-swing adjustments that only appear when rewatching slo-mo videos. The instinctive ability to put the bigger part of his bat on the baseball is truly his calling card. What he does once that contact is made is both loud and impressive. It’s apparent that hours upon hours of practice has melded hand-eye coordination, strength, and athleticism to a whipping uppercut that truly looks tailor-made for left and left-center in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Defensively, his throws from the hole and 3rd baseline were measured and accurate.
The Future Left Side of the Infield
Here’s where Gunnar and Mayo sort of fit together on the left side. Watching them field grounders and make the plays to 1st, you see a very upright posture which I prefer, but more fundamentals show through on video. Both players have good arms and the confidence that comes with it, so they do not rush plays by not having their shoulders pointed across the diamond. They line up their feet, as well as their upper bodies like guys who have been in the bigs for years.
The more reps I watch, the more I see that the ability for them to play Short and 3rd is so natural that to me there’s no question it’s where they belong. Both players are so well drilled that the reps in practice happen with actual intensity and game speed. In that regard, they’re leaders already and share that advanced tool. Also, both are equally adept at the difficult barehand play. It’s perfect that they’ll be next to each other in the dirt, almost forming a wall for hitters to try to penetrate.
Gunnar was recently promoted to Double-A Bowie weeks after turning 20. Only looking at numbers, it seems that the call-up may have been premature as the adjustment to High A pitching didn’t leave the counting stats shining. But as the calendar turned to September the youngster showed he could handle the game load increase and hit .296 w/3 HR to even things up. Handling the rigors of everyday play, being a team leader, and being a rising prospect seems to not have any effect on Henderson’s focus.
How Gunnar Feels
When I talked to him recently he had more of a ‘work is just getting started’ perspective than counting down the days until he gets to go home to Alabama and practice his jump shot. The offense and defense for both players are top tier today and there’s room for growth. But away from baseball, there’s reason to see both of them as franchise fixtures for years to come and that’s their personalities.
Both guys are different in background and culture but both are products of 2-parent families where sports are stressed and the support systems are strong. They believe in themselves because they have others believing in them. The ability to see past adversity will help as baseball begins to provide pressure and test them. Already, there’s evidence that a bad at-bat or slump isn’t going to shake them. At 19 and 20, those are the intangible type of factors that cannot be coached or measured.
As a fan of the Orioles for several decades, I’ve willingly steered myself headfirst into the hype before. Matt Wieters is one that I’ll never be able to forget, but really this started before even Dylan Bundy. This goes back to Jeffrey Hammonds, maybe even further. You see, my team doesn’t have star prospects turn into franchise cornerstones very often.
Machado might be all there was since Cal Ripken and Mussina. But the ‘it factor’ of both Henderson and Mayo (added to Grayson, Rutschman, etc) is just too much to ignore. The Orioles do not commonly extend 7-figure bonuses to high school players and Coby got over 1.5 million to forgo his scholarship to the Florida Gators. If he didn’t, he’d have been among the absolute best aluminum bat hitters in America right now.
Instead, he’s climbing the ladder up to Baltimore, a rung or two behind Gunnar. Henderson was on track to lead Auburn when the O’s changed his mind with cash. Lots of cash. That’s a sign of positive organizational change. The chances they took with these teenagers turned out to be worthwhile so the Orioles draft room might be inclined to risk moderately again with future selections. Catcher Creed Williams got paid this year being bought out of his commitment to TCU when other picks were under-slotted (paid less than perceived value) so perhaps the tide has already shifted. Next year the developmental tracks of Henderson and Mayo will come closer to aligning but it’s even clearer that the destination is to be the left side of the infield in Baltimore.
After their significant progress on and off the field in 2021, there’s even more reason to see it as a beautiful reality.
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