It’s February 26th and my toughest decision is whether to wear shorts or jeans to the Orioles Spring Training game that evening against Atlanta. Somewhere in the middle innings a Brave shoots a grounder into the hole and the O’s shortstop gets to it, spins and…..lets out a weak throw that barely makes it to first after a few bounces. Being a defense first baseball observer, my dissatisfaction is obvious to my seat mates, future Orioles infielders Darell Hernaiz, Gunnar Henderson and Toby Welk. Shaking my head, I remind the guys that plays like this are too common, and their collective response was, “We’ve got this”,with their youthful smirks. I think they were right.
I’ve watched both Gunnar and Darell-the H&H boys, from their first days in Orange and Black and have always wanted to talk to them about their experience and their similar tracks to pro ball. In the 2019 MLB Draft, Gunnar was selected in the second round out of the John T. Morgan Academy in Alabama, and Hernaiz in the fifth round from Americas High School in Texas. They’re both 18 years old, born in the summer of 2001. They both play the infield with sizzling skill and as the days of minor league camp wore on, I saw elements of high level chemistry and watched their footwork, throws and especially positioning play off each other. It was the beginning of what could be an elite double play combo down the road and the fan in me is beyond excited at the possibilities. I’ve been eager to let O’s fans know some more about the future so I was glad the pair had time to get in touch and talk baseball. Both Gunnar and Darell were very eager to talk when I proposed the idea.
Starting off their pro careers in the Gulf Coast League, both players debuted on a championship team as the 2019 GCL Orioles won their division. Being drafted in June, by July they were both performers in a lineup that scored often. Hernaiz got going a couple weeks ahead of Gunnar and had his eyes on improving his team’s record from 2018 and raising expectations from the jump.
“I feel like our draft class totally changed that from the day we got there, then we got G and we just started rolling…..I really never felt the other team would actually beat us”.
From the stands I felt the same way and expected the O’s to win every time. It is significant to know that the players do too.There’s nothing like confidence. When Henderson was added to the team, taking his first official swings on July 11, he was eager to get rolling but fully aware that his squad was a darn good one.
“They were on a winning streak so when I got there I just wanted to help keep it going. We kept winning and carried it all the way to the end. I hated the way it ended but really enjoyed my first year”.
Clinching their playoff spot late, they were prepping for the postseason when Hurricane Dorian ruined any chances of more games. So they didn’t get a ring, instead they proudly got a banner in Ed Smith Stadium. It was a fitting end to an excellent campaign but these guys stay looking to tomorrow. That’s part of the appeal as far as the youth movement… forward focus. Being so young and having so much of their baseball future ahead of them, these two in particular seem like the pandemic is only a temporary break and baseball is currently a big part of their daily life. I asked about health, eating and baseball activities and all are tracking positively. The Orioles shipped some equipment to west Texas so Darell could continue adding lbs. through the lay-off.
“I got dumbbells from 5-50 so I do exercises limited to those….definitely still feel good and strong.0”
Gunnar has a unique setup during the pandemic too. In fact, I may be a little jealous.
“I’ve been pretty fortunate to have a weight room to go to with nobody around! And my mom has been cooking just about every night. I have cooked the meals with the Orioles as well.”
Fans can take a deep breath knowing that the future infielders are staying on top of their health, but what about baseball specific activities or training? How are their skills staying razor sharp like they were when camp shut down?
Darell gets to take advantage of the resources provided to him by his high school team, the Blazers.
“I’ve been throwing 3x a week and hitting at my high school. My swing feels good as ever!”
Hitting on the Americas fields should be nothing new to Hernaizas he batted over .400 and had 15 extra base hits in his senior year. I watched Darell get better at barreling the baseball and driving it with power to the fence so it’s great to know he’s continuing to grow offensively and focused on repeated connection.
Henderson gets his reps in at Morgan’s facilities and on this Tuesday night had recently finished up a session.
“I’ve been throwing 3 times a week and my high school opened back up….just got done hitting. I take ground balls after I hit every time. My dad hits ground balls to me”.
Darell’s staying on top of his glove work as best he can. Finding capable partners isn’t so easy when you play ball like these guys do. There is no way to replicate the expert level instruction that the Orioles player development staff has going for them. The infield guys work their players hard and with purpose and that’s as big league as it can get.
“I’ve taken a few [grounders] but not a ton. It’s tough finding people that want to put in the work here where I live”.
Coming from a pro baseball background where his father reached AA, Hernaiz knows what it takes to perform on the professional level and he has a great drive to keep improving. This is another example of a young player using a chip on hisshoulder to motivate himself. I recall our first conversation when he told me that he has plenty to prove. So far so good.
When looking at a pair of young players like these I don’t feel the need to speculate on where they’ll play in the field, but it’s been a point of contention, especially for Gunnar. At 6-2, 200lbs., he’s not small and to some that means a move off of SS which is where both players lined up splitting reps and at-bats evenly in their first year. I love the process of seeing a player find their spot as opposed to making a decision or forcing a fit, and I watched it every day. There’s loads of infield skill to develop including quickly rising speedster Adam Hall, 2019 draft pick Joey Ortiz, ground ball magnet Cadyn Grenier, slugging Welk, and early camp standouts like Willy Yahn and Jesmuel Valentin. Competition, mixed with upbeat and smart coaching, has already put both teenagers on an accelerated track upwards.
Despite watching and filming a large percentage of their practices, I had to ask about positional assignments for 2020. Gunnar will be focused on Cal’s old spot.
“As far as I know stay at short.”
That answers that. Darell hadn’t had that talk specifically.
“We were getting to that point in spring training but they never told us”.
I noticed multiple situations. Almost every drill had Hernaiz at second base where he showed the hyper quick hand/foot combo and instincts to make every play there, but when former big league shortstop JJ Hardy came over from Orioles camp he spent a while talking defense with Darell. I saw pre-pitch positioning, posture and fluidity to the max with Darell at both spots, so he’s got an excellent foundation to stay at either one.
“I felt good with my boy G! If we have a season, I assume we’ll be a double play combo”.
I remember a second at camp where I allowed my O’s fantasies to flow and I thought about not getting the most out of Schoopand Machado playing alongside each other and how much it would mean to have two mashers in the
middle infield growing together. The more I thought about it, the more I couldn’t help but to see it. These guys have actual baseball chemistry, they fit! It’s hard to put into words, but they run on and off the field like they’ve been teammates for years. They yell encouragement like they know how to lift the others’ game and it works. Watching a fungo go from a 95 mph sizzler to an efficiently turned 4-6-3 double play in their hands, I worry less about that play in the hole not made against the Braves and think more about the tempo and rhythm on display right in front of me.
Country music got him amped up on the daily (I can now name Dixieland Delight in one note), but the prospect of playing with Darell has Gunnar fixated on what’s coming.
“Ever since we first met each other I felt a bond with D so I can’t wait to use that on the field”.
Speaking of sweet sounds, that should be music to the ears of Orioles fans no matter how despondent the rebuild or baseball slowdown has made you. The future is young, skilled and displaying a very positive attitude and mindset.
Looking back at their first season in pro ball there were lots of big plays, hits and rallies being part of a winning team. The quality of opponents is a huge factor and handling that higher skill level is crucial. Watching these guys hit the ground running and fight through adversity early on was an excellent indicator. I wanted to know when it became clear to them that pro ball was an entirely different game. Hernaiz recalled a tough plate appearance against a high quality arm.
“Mine was against the Rays and I faced a first or second round pitcher from college. He threw me a fastball I was way late, then he threw me another one and I took it right down the middle and I swung at a curveball in the dirt. I’ve never looked so bad in my life, haha, but you make your adjustments and eventually figure it out. By the end of the season I felt good and ready to go though….just the learning period I guess.”
He ended up batting .263 and getting on-base 37% of the time,so he figured it out pretty well. Not inclined to waste his time sitting on first base, he kept the offense moving going 5-5 in steals. By the way, the Rays pitcher who got him was fireballer Seth Johnson, a second rounder from Campbell College who Tampa is very high on and is respected in prospect circles.
Henderson’s “welcome to the pros moment” came courtesy of the Red Sox’ lefty Jorge Rodriguez, an excellent speed changer with movement all over the place. Scouts and coaches agreed he was one of the best pitchers they faced in the rookie league.
“That’s when it hit me, when I faced that lefty from the Red Sox because I was battling and I thought I had him figured out. Then he dropped a change up and I had no idea he had one!”
Well, he most certainly does. Along with a slider and well placed heat. Rodriguez carved up the young Orioles over his 3 appearances racking up 21 strikeouts in 14 innings although they were able to beat him once. He’s an opponent I’ll have my eye on for a while. And he represented an excellent measuring stick for the prospects I’m focused on.
These two players stand out because they’re similar in lots of ways including youth, last names starting with H, skill sets/level and especially attitude. Even their statistics in their debut seasons are strikingly aligned. Their performance at the plate will carry the most weight and that’s where some great differences shine through.
Gunnar bats lefty with a wider, longer stroke and Darell is in the righty box with a tighter, shorter more direct cut. Following through the ball at impact, Darell has a much more power alley pointed swing and line drives it with electricity. Henderson’s follow through is loftier and has the backspin to go opposite field with touch. I recalled a sim game at-bat where he inside outed a fastball and drove it to the left field fence right on the line on one bounce. These guys are blessed with abilities at the plate and other endless possibilities, so it brought out another topic I’m curious about, player data and how to utilize it. The focus was a big adjustment for Darell.
“We were more into advanced data and about technology this year. I try to hit the ball hard and the coaches know about that stuff”.
Gunnar had to get used to a new way of processing what he’s doing in the batter’s box.
“I like the rapsodo machines that show your exit velo and ball flight”.
Instructors, like Minor League Hitting Coach Ryan Fuller, have to love the challenge in front of them with eager young players like these. It’s easy to see the process of maximizing that’s ahead of them and look at it optimistically, even in the face of an uncertain short term future.
That brings me to the final point I’d been eager to discuss with them, or any team member involved in the organization’s rebuild. Oriole supporters have been looking to the future for a while. What is it like to be part of that future and how easy is it for them to see that things are moving in a positive direction? According to Darell, he’s ready.
“I think it’s great that we might someday turn the situation around. We have great talent on the minor league side but nothing is given…we need to earn it. Everyone needs to prove that and work collectively in order to bring a championship to Baltimore”.
Gunnar seemed just as eager, an attitude reflective of the youth in the system.
“I can’t wait to hopefully turn everything around. Like D said, ‘It’s earned not given’. It all starts in the weight room and repetition on the field, so I can’t wait to see how everything turns out”.
To fill the gaps in free time for now they’re both happy to chill with their families and play video games. Darell didn’t play anything but baseball after middle school, where he did football and hoops, so he watches lots of movies. I told him UTEP reminded me of Tim Hardaway, he thought I would have guessed the film Glory Road, so maybe he’s a real movie expert. Gunnar has a younger brother who he can teach baseball and basketball but they’d both rather be back on the baseball clock getting into their seasons. I remember how happy they both were to not know what day it was at camp, just keep grinding it didn’t matter.
Now there’s no focus on a calendar for different reasons but these players are still demonstrating that growth mentality that made them ideal fits for the improving Orioles. My hope is that you have a little bit better idea of who Darell and Gunnar are, both as guys and players. It’s been a pleasant surprise at how much progress they’ve already made and I can’t wait for the future of the H&H boys making their way towards Camden Yards and bringing this high quality baseball to Baltimore