Every day it’s the same. Triple-A Norfolk manager Buck Britton tells infielder Gunnar Henderson to stop calling him “sir,” yet Henderson can’t help it. It’s so ingrained in the 21-year-old from Alabama that calling Britton anything else would feel weird.
At this point, Britton is resigned to the fact that Henderson won’t change. As managing a baseball team adds more grey hair to his beard and head, Britton figures “maybe in a couple years I’ll be ‘sir.’ Then it won’t matter.”
It’s the same reason Britton has seen no change in Henderson since Baseball America updated its Top 100 prospect rankings Monday and moved the infielder to the top of the list. The Orioles’ 2019 second-round draft pick is still yet to face a pitcher older than him in Triple-A, his OPS is hovering near four digits and he’s on the brink of a major league call-up.
And yet, even as the superlatives stack up and the expectations soar, Henderson doesn’t change.
“Obviously, he knows about it. It would be naïve to think he’s not looking at those accolades every once in a while,” Britton said. “He just comes here every day, same kid in the locker room today after being labeled the No. 1 prospect as he was when he was first drafted. I don’t think any of that stuff matters to him. He just wants to be as good as he can and get to the big leagues and compete up there.”
Henderson is among several highly rated Orioles prospects nearing the majors, including outfielder Kyle Stowers and left-hander DL Hall, but none have a better case to be called up so soon.
In 47 games for the Tides, Henderson is hitting .295 with a .408 on-base percentage and .942 OPS. He’s launched nine home runs — part of 17 total between Double-A and Triple-A — and has 71 walks compared to 87 strikeouts across both levels.
For a player who’s dominating the minor leagues, what’s there left to work on? Not much.
“He could go up there and compete,” Britton said. “But he’s still sharpening every aspect of his game. This guy is still a pup.”
There’s precedent for the Orioles to take their time with prospects, even ones so highly touted. Catcher Adley Rutschman, whose No. 1 overall prospect label was taken by Henderson, remained in the minors until he checked certain boxes, such as proving he could catch three days in a row. Right-hander Grayson Rodriguez had proven he could dominate Triple-A, but a strained right lat muscle sidelined baseball’s top pitching prospect right before a potential promotion.
So Henderson finds himself in similar territory, proving himself on a nightly basis without the immediate reward of a major league debut.
“Still freshly turned 21, still very young for this level,” said Henderson, who represented the Orioles at the MLB All-Star Futures Game in Los Angeles last month. “I’ll just keep doing what I do each and every day: Go out there and try to learn as much as I can and just keep better preparing myself each and every day so no matter what I’ll be ready.”
When Britton thinks of what else Henderson has to prove, he’s not left with many options. He notes how defensive consistency is a constant focus, be that at shortstop or third base. But offensively, just about everything is there.
Last month, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias acknowledged that Henderson, Hall and infield prospects Jordan Westburg and Terrin Vavra were pushing to join the big league club sooner than later. Vavra was called up in late July and is hitting .347 in 10 games.
“Anybody who’s playing as well or as talented as the four of those guys are, it could happen at any moment,” Elias said.
Henderson has shown he can command the strike zone, and as a left-handed hitter, his plate appearances against left-handed pitching have improved. Should he receive a promotion, the expectation is that he’d be an everyday player — necessitating left-on-left matchups.
While Henderson hit just .147 with a .176 slugging percentage against southpaws with Double-A Bowie, his results in Triple-A have been much better. With the Tides, Henderson is hitting .258 with a .484 slugging percentage against lefties.
“In Double-A, I felt like I didn’t get to face them as consistently as I have here, so I felt like that was a big part,” Henderson said. “There were a few weeks where I’d face one at the beginning of the week and then another at the very end, and even in high school I didn’t face very many. I knew it was just being able to really see them consistently, and my weeks here have been really helpful for my development, because I just needed to see them more.”
In a late-June series against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Henderson faced a left-handed starter in all six games — the most concentrated action against southpaws of his professional career. He still launched two homers as part of his seven-hit week.
It was the kind of progress that gave Henderson confidence. As he proves that success wasn’t isolated to a week, it goes a long way in dispelling any belief that his splits will keep him out of the everyday Orioles lineup this season.
“The biggest thing is he hits the ball really well to left-center field and he’s really done a nice job commanding the strike zone,” Britton said. “You do that, there’s no real panic when you’re facing lefties.”
Evening his splits has helped Henderson gain traction toward a promotion while propelling him atop the prospect rankings. It’s just a matter of time before he’s in Baltimore.
But as Henderson has proven to Britton during their time together, the young star doesn’t change on the day-to-day, be that calling his manager “sir” or tuning out the growing hype.
“Be appreciative of what happens, but just always stay the same way you are,” Henderson said, “and never get too big headed.”