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Who Should the Baltimore Orioles Prioritize as Contract Extension Candidates?

Inspired by a segment on my favorite MLB Network show, MLB Now (shoutout to Brian Kenny, the GOAT), that featured this same conversation (but not quite to my satisfaction), I wanted to do a bit of an exploration of which of the two young superstar Orioles (in case you couldn't figure it out, it's Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson) Baltimore should focus extending.

If you, the reader, are sitting there thinking, "Uh, why not both?" you're absolutely right! They should do both.

But, in today's game of cheap owners and blaming the "streaming bubble" for wanting to hoard as much profit as they can, the Orioles' front office might be under the unfortunate mandate of having to choose between giving a hefty (and deserved) extension to either Adley Rutschman or Gunnar Henderson.

The choice might jump out as apparent to you, the educated reader (because why else wouldn't you be reading this brilliant and not stolen at all article), but it's still fun to talk about the pros and cons for each because they're both fantastic players.

We'll start with the perhaps obvious choice and begin with his pros:

Gunnar Henderson's Pros:

Let's start with a basic yet important one: he's a lefty hitter. Left-handed hitters pose a huge advantage in baseball because the majority of the league is right-handed, giving these hitters the platoon advantage in most of their matchups. That's an easy one.

Add in the fact that he seems to be taking full advantage of that edge with a whopping 149 career wRC+ against righties, and that's a compelling starting point.

But we're only just starting to cook.

His defense at a premier position, such as shortstop, is elite, making him a legit contender for a Gold Glove. He has shown a real sense of improvement over last year, going from exactly average at 0 Outs Above Average to already 6 for the 2024 season.

He runs the bases incredibly well, providing 5.8 runs on the bases last year and already 2.7 for this season. His overall contributions have made him just as valuable this year as last year, at 4.7 fWAR with over three months left of the season.

His contributions and numbers are all amazing, fantastic, 12/10, but this final part might be what really puts him over Adley in terms of value: he's 22. Yes, he missed the turn of the century, yet he's out here mashing baseballs, making ridiculous plays, and overall being awesome at baseball. So even if the Orioles sign him to a 10-year deal next season, he'll only be 33 when that deal expires, giving Baltimore his prime while allowing them to let him walk if they choose to go that route.

So, Gunnar's pros are enough to get him an edge over Adley.

Gunnar Henderson's Cons

Unfortunately for Mr. Rutschman, there aren't that many cons for Henderson. But there are a few: He's not a catcher, so his impact with both his bat and what he can do defensively will never be as great. As few shortstops there are who can do what Gunnar does, there are even fewer who can do what Adley does behind the plate while also being a solid hitter.

He also hasn't been there as long as Adley has, and the turnaround in Baltimore from when Adley was called to now is remarkable. It's obviously not all on Rutschman's shoulders, as the Orioles have surrounded him with elite talent like Gunnar, but it's hard to ignore that impact.

Adley Rutschman's Pros

We'll start with my favorite part of Rutschman's game: he's a switch hitter. That's rare enough, but he's truly good from both sides of the plate. Not only that, he's showing quite a bit more pop, with a .184 ISO and a far higher barrel% than previous seasons. He's showing every bit of Gunnar's work ethic while managing a pitching staff (we'll get to that) and doing it from both sides of the plate.

Speaking of pitching staff management, Rutschman's framing numbers have dropped a bit this season, but his previous seasons of production suggest it's too early to be concerned. Plus, if you think about Baltimore's success with their pitching staff last year, it obviously has a whole lot to do with their stellar player development system and their front office identifying talent, but hey, it doesn't hurt to have someone behind the dish so consistently like Adley.

And that brings us to his durability. Knock on wood (because I'm superstitious), he has avoided significant injury and has been able to play over 100 games over his first couple of seasons, topping out at 154 last year during his first full 162 (not too bad for a catcher).

You're just not going to find another catcher like Adley. Are you likely to find another shortstop like Gunnar? Of course not, but catchers like Rutschman come around even less often.

Adley Rutschman's Cons

There are a few more of these, but it's being picky. At 26, he's four years older than Gunnar, meaning his best years might still be under team control. This makes him a bit less attractive as an extension candidate, especially considering the average baseball lifespan of catchers.

He also does a bit more damage against lefties than righties, with a 145 career wRC+ against lefties vs. a 124 vs. righties (still pretty darn good, and even more of a reason to keep both to balance out the lineup), making him slightly less of a platoon advantage guy despite being a switch-hitter.

So, if you're forced to choose, you likely go with Gunnar, as Rutschman's cons are a bit more severe than Gunnar's, and Henderson is a potential annual MVP candidate who still has three years before turning 25.

Then again, both agents are well aware of their clients' value, and perhaps neither end up signing extensions and would prefer to wait it out and test their value in free agency. We'll see.

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