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Orioles call up top prospect Gunnar Henderson

The Orioles officially selected the contract of top prospect Gunnar Henderson. In corresponding moves, infielder Tyler Nevin was optioned to Triple-A, and right-hander Denyi Reyes was designated for assignment.

There was widespread speculation that Henderson would receive his first MLB promotion when the rosters expanded on Sept. 1, though in calling Henderson up to the big leagues Wednesday, the Orioles have now made the infielder eligible for inclusion on a postseason roster should Baltimore continue its surprising season with a playoff berth.

A second-round pick for Baltimore in the 2019 draft, Henderson played in only 29 Rookie League games that season and then naturally didn’t play at all in 2020 due to the canceled minor league campaign. His first proper pro season saw Henderson play well enough to jump from A-ball to Double-A in 2021, and it put him on the top-100 prospect radar heading into the 2022 season.

Fast-forward to August, and the 21-year-old is now the top prospect in the sport in the eyes of Baseball America, with MLB Pipeline ranking Henderson second and FanGraphs ranking him fifth. Over 503 combined plate appearances at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2022, Henderson has hit .297/.416/.531 with 19 homers, as well as 22 steals in 25 chances.

To go along with his power, speed and hit tools, Henderson is also an accomplished fielder with a plus throwing arm. Drafted as a shortstop, Henderson has looked good at the position, but he has also seen a lot of time as a third baseman this season and also played a handful of games at first and second base. The Orioles have so many other promising young infielders (i.e. Jordan Westburg, Jackson Holliday) in the pipeline that the team is trying to be flexible in determining the ideal future position for any of these prospects, and Henderson’s usage might also hint at how the O’s will use him during the stretch run of the 2022 season.

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The left-handed hitting Henderson could spell any of Ramon Urias, Jorge Mateo or Ryan Mountcastle (all righty bats) at third, short or first base, and Henderson could also take playing time away from Rougned Odor at second base. Henderson certainly isn’t being called up to sit on the bench, and he could quickly become a fixture if he performs well in his first look at major league pitching.

Of course, it isn’t a given that Henderson will have such a quick start, as countless top prospects have taken some time to get accustomed to the majors. In Henderson’s case, his high strikeout rate in the minors is something of a red flag, though he has cut back on his swing-and-miss in 2022 in comparison to 2021. He also posted huge BABIP numbers in the minors, yet Henderson’s speed (and ability to beat out grounders) is certainly a factor in those BABIP totals beyond just batted-ball fortune.

These are heady times for the Orioles, which have emerged from years of rebuilding doldrums to post a 67-61 record and get into contention for a wild-card berth. Adley Rutschman — an exception to that “top prospects usually need time to adjust” credo — has already become one of baseball’s best catchers, and other rookies like Felix Bautista, Dean Kremer and Kyle Bradish have played outsized roles in the team’s success. Kyle Stowers and Terrin Vavra are two more rookies who made their MLB debuts in 2022, and Henderson is just one of several other top prospects waiting to emerge from Baltimore’s loaded farm system.

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As recently noted by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, Henderson will also still retain his rookie status for 2023 if he receives less than 130 at-bats, and thus the Orioles can still benefit from the Prospect Promotion Initiative included in the new collective bargaining agreement. This would put the O’s in line for a bonus draft pick if Henderson remains on the active roster for the entire 2023 season.

Reyes made his major league debut this season, posting a 2.35 ERA in 7 2/3 innings over three appearances. A starter for much of his seven-year pro career in the Red Sox and Orioles farm systems, Reyes hasn’t had much consistency at either the Double-A or Triple-A levels, and he has a 7.50 ERA over 42 innings with Baltimore’s Triple-A affiliate this season.

Reyes has allowed 10 homers in those 42 frames, continuing a problem with the long ball that has now emerged over the last two seasons. Surrendering more homers has erased gains Reyes has made with his strikeout rate, and he has shown excellent control throughout his entire career, with a tiny 1.4 BB/9 during his 584 1/3 minor league innings.


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