The Baltimore Orioles entered Monday, a scheduled day off, just 2 1/2 games out of the last American League wild-card spot. The Orioles will resume their season on Tuesday, embarking on a nine-game stretch that will feature three-game sets against the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Guardians, two of their top competitors for a postseason spot, as well as the Houston Astros, arguably the AL's top squad. In other words, this will be a pivotal week-plus for Baltimore's playoff aspirations.
One way the Orioles could improve their chances, of having a good week and reaching their first postseason since 2016, is by calling up 21-year-old infield prospect Gunnar Henderson. He's spent most of the season in Triple-A, where he's batted .289/.388/.520 with 11 home runs and 16 other extra-base hits in 58 games. Some scouts who spoke to CBS Sports consider him to be the top prospect in the minors.
Mind you, there's already been indication the Orioles are weighing a Henderson promotion. General manager Mike Elias told MASN Sports recently that Henderson is "putting himself in a position to be in a lot of conversations about maybe helping this team down the stretch." The Orioles have also tasked Henderson with starts at second and first base over the past week, likely to improve his optionality ahead of a call-up.
There are two key dates to keep in mind as it pertains to Henderson's promotion. The first is Tuesday, as there will be only 44 days remaining in the season. That's important because players cannot be eligible for the ensuing year's Rookie of the Year Award if they exceed that service-time mark -- and that's important because teams can now gain draft-pick compensation if their players win that award. The other is Sept. 1, when rosters expand to 28 players for the rest of the regular season.
For some additional insight and perspective on why the Orioles might promote Henderson sooner than later, let's address three things to know about the possibility.
1. Henderson might be the top prospect in the minors
As mentioned in the introduction, CBS Sports has talked with some talent evaluators who believe Henderson is now the best player in the minors. Others have had him slotted in behind only Arizona Diamondbacks outfield prospect Corbin Carroll. Either way, he'll be in the conversation for the No. 1 spot on prospect lists come the winter.
Henderson, as a reminder, has hit .298/.388/.520 with 11 home runs in 58 Triple-A games. He's impressed scouts with his above-average raw power and his defensive potential. The Orioles have cross-trained him at both left-side infield positions throughout his career, but scouts expect him to end up at third base long term.
If there is an immediate concern to Henderson's game, it's his proneness to strikeouts. He's punched out in more than a quarter of his trips to the plate in Triple-A, and it seems unlikely that that percentage would drop with a promotion. Henderson's youth is a reason to be optimistic about him making the necessary adjustments with time, but there's a difference between short- and long-term considerations; the Orioles, ultimately, have to decide if he's likely to be productive over the next 41 games, irrespective of their expectations for him over the long haul.
Whatever the Orioles decide in that respect, Henderson will remain a well-regarded prospect who appears to have a bright future ahead of him.
2. Henderson would add depth, versatility to lineup
Should the Orioles promote Henderson, how would he fit into their lineup? Manager Brandon Hyde has consistently started Jorge Mateo at shortstop and Ramón Urías at third base, which helps to explain why the Orioles have had Henderson play some games on the right side of the infield, to help open up easier paths to at-bats.
Second base would appear to be the most obvious position for Henderson to slot in at. Rougned Odor's .267 on-base percentage is the seventh worst in the majors among players with at least 350 trips to the plate, and his 78 OPS+ would be his full-season worst since 2017. (He posted a 66 OPS+ in 2020, albeit in 38 games.) If the Orioles prefer to keep Odor in the lineup for whatever reason -- leadership, presumably -- then it's not hard to see the rough sketch of a timeshare situation at first base.
The incumbent first baseman, Ryan Mountcastle, has a 103 OPS+ over the full season and ranks 18th out of 25 qualified first basemen in FanGraphs' wRC+ metric. He has been more productive in his big-league career when he's had the platoon advantage, amassing an OPS 33 points superior against lefties. Henderson, meanwhile, has an OPS north of 1.000 versus righties as compared to a .700 mark versus lefties. He's also struck out in a third of his plate appearances against same-handed pitchers.
The other option the Orioles could pursue is to have Henderson ping-pong between second and first base, depending on the matchup. That way, they could keep all three players happy and engaged in case an injury were to occur to one of the trio.
3. Orioles face tough road
The most important parts of the Orioles' calculus revolve around Henderson and his long-term development. Beyond that, though, they have to be aware of the reality that they have one of the toughest remaining schedules among AL contenders.
The Orioles' average opponent's record is 62-58, according to Baseball-Reference, putting them third in the league. The only contender with a stiffer schedule is the Tampa Bay Rays, whose average opponent is two wins better, at 64-56.
The Seattle Mariners have the easiest road in the AL, suggesting they should be a shoo-in to win one of the three wild-card spots. That leaves the Orioles jockeying with the Rays, whichever two teams fail to win the AL Central (the Chicago White Sox have the second-easiest schedule in the AL), and the Blue Jays. With the exception of the Rays, none of those teams' opponents have an average record that's better than .500.
Strength of schedule doesn't always determine playoff races, of course, but on paper the Orioles could use the talent boost to help offset their disadvantage.