The Baltimore Orioles are finally making the transition from rebuilder to contender. After winning no more than 54 games every year from 2018-21 (shortened 2020 season caveats apply), the O's are 59-55 and only 1 1/2 games behind the third and final American League wild-card spot. SportsLine may put their postseason odds at only 9.6 percent, but progress is being made.
Baltimore's surge coincides almost perfectly with the call up of No. 1 prospect Adley Rutschman on May 21. The O's were 16-24 prior to Rutschman's call up. They are 43-31 since then, the American League's third-best record during that time, behind only the Houston Astros (50-26) and Seattle Mariners (45-31). Could the O's soon call up another top prospect?
During an MLB Network radio interview this past weekend, Orioles GM Mike Elias hinted as a possible call up for shortstop Gunnar Henderson, who Baseball America ranks as the game's No. 1 prospect. Here's what Elias said about Henderson:
"We're going to -- within reason -- do everything we can to enhance our playoff odds. I think this year is definitely on the table (for a Henderson call up). Right now we have a bunch of infielders that are playing pretty well ... As things evolve here the next month and a half, I think Gunnar is on the radar screen."
Henderson, 21, was the No. 42 pick in the 2019 draft, the same draft the O's selected Rutschman with No. 1 pick. Henderson is having a monster season, hitting .301/.424/.547 with 18 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 99 games split between Double-A and Triple-A. He is hitting .293/.400/.525 with 10 homers in 52 Triple-A games while being one of the youngest players in the league.
The Orioles currently have Jorge Mateo (2.6 WAR) at shortstop and Ramón Urías (2.0 WAR) at third base. They're having productive seasons, though it should be noted both have sub-.300 on-base percentages, and their WAR is largely defense. Defense is important, but a team that ranks 18th in runs scored per game should look for ways to improve its offense.
Henderson has split his time between shortstop and third base this season and the obvious move is sliding Urías to second base, a position he has played plenty in his career, and installing Henderson at third base. Rougned Odor is hitting .206/.267/.377 at second base and there's no reason he should stand in the way of a Henderson promotion.
There are no good service-time reasons to keep Henderson in the minors. He's already been down long enough to push back his free agency and avoid Super Two stats. The only service time reason the Orioles have to keep Henderson in the minors is if they're planning to manipulate his service time next year, and push back his free agency even further.
Wander Franco, Julio Rodríguez, and even Rutschman show that top prospects like Henderson can sometimes need a few weeks to get settled in at the MLB level before really breaking out. It's possible Henderson comes up and is a downgrade at short or third, but it's also possible he's a significant upgrade. With a postseason berth within reach, calls for a promotion will only grow louder.