Quick—pretend you’re an MLB GM in 2022 for a second. Which of these prospects would you take in the upcoming draft?
Prospect A: OF, 19 y/o, .570 BA, 13 home runs, 39 RBI, 33 walks, 32 stolen bases in senior year HS
Prospect B: SS, 21 y/o, .357 BA, 15 home runs, 55 RBIs, 46 walks, 3 stolen bases in sophomore year in NCAA D1
Prospect C: SS, 18 y/o, .561 BA, 6 home runs, 19 RBIs, 27 walks, 14 stolen in senior year HS
Prospect D: SS, 17 y/o, .685 BA, 17 home runs, 79 RBIs, 33 walks, 30 stolen bases in senior year HS
No disrespect to the other three prospects most often linked to the Orioles pre-2022 draft—Druw Jones (A), Brooks Lee (B), and Termarr Johnson (C), who will all probably go on to have distinguished major-league careers, but there’s only one right answer here, and that’s Jackson Holliday.
“Yeah, I’ve got no complaints,” Holliday told reporters in September. “This year has gone about as well as I could possibly imagine. My goal was Double-A, and to make it to Triple-A is quite something. It’s been quite a year.”
Holliday had such a good 2023 season that it feels almost stupid to write about it. After beginning the year at Single-A Delmarva, the 19-year-old motored his way through High-A Aberdeen and Double-A Bowie before ending the season with Triple-A Norfolk, where he helped his team win the Triple-A Championship. Over 125 games across four levels, Holliday hit .323/.442/.499/.941 with 30 doubles, nine triples, 12 homers, 24 steals, 154 hits, 101 walks, 113 runs and 75 RBIs. Then to cap it all off, he won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year Award, is now MLB’s No. 1 prospect, and was named Prospect of the Year by Keith Law at The Athletic, too.
It’s funny because, pre-draft, Keith Law himself had touted Druw Jones as the clear top choice in the 2022 draft class. In fall 2021, Holliday wasn’t even on some of the top prospects lists at all. Perhaps because he was barely eligible for a drivers’ license at that point.
But Holliday turned into “the highest riser in the draft” with a monster senior high school season that, according to O’s GM Mike Elias, caused “a fire alarm in the scouting industry.” Not only did Holliday hit a ludicrous .685 en route to breaking J.T. Realmuto’s twelve-year-old Oklahoma state hit record, he also showed speed and power for days, with a 1.392 slugging percentage to go with 30 stolen bases. On top of that, he made just three errors all season from the shortstop position. According to Law and other baseball commentators, Holliday “did a lot of work on his body and swing” in 2021-22, standing up straighter to help channel his emerging power. Sure hands and a strong arm up the middle, foot speed, power, and contact ability? What’s not to love?
Immediately post-draft, most baseball outlets seemed fairly jazzed about the Orioles’ selection of Holliday at No. 1 overall. But it’s fair to say that none foresaw Holliday breaking out so decisively from the clump of unusually talented, mature, and seasoned (mostly high school) prospects filling out the Draft Top 10.
Like I said, Druw Jones, Brooks Lee and Termarr Johnson will hopefully go on to have great pro ball careers, but they didn’t come close to accomplishing what Holliday did in 2023. Jones, drafted second overall by the Diamondbacks, had shoulder surgery in fall 2022 and finished the 2023 season at Low-A with a .238/.353/.327 slashline in 41 games. Johnson is with the Pirates’ High-A affiliate and hit .244/.422/.438 in 105 games. Brooks Lee made it to Triple-A as a part of the Twins org, but his batting line is less flashy than Holliday’s, at .275/.347/.461 in 125 games.
So yeah, the Orioles and their crystal ball look pretty brilliant for now.
As for Holliday, he busted out of the gate in his first full professional season. Debuting with the Delmarva Shorebirds, the 19-year-old demolished Low-A pitchers to the tune of a .392/.523/.667 line with nine extra-base hits in 51 AB’s and a 14-to-12 walk-to-strikeout ratio. “Absolute star,” tweeted Jeff Passan on April 24, the day the Orioles announced they were promoting the shortstop to High-A Aberdeen.
Just two months later, Holliday jumped another level, getting called up to Double-A Bowie after hitting .314 with 21 extra-base hits in 57 games, a .940 OPS and 17 stolen bases for the IronBirds. Keith Law saw him play a game there and concluded that he had “zero doubts” about Holliday’s ability to stay at shortstop in the long term.
Holliday had pretty much the same success there, too, despite being about four years young for the level. In 36 games at Double-A, Holliday hit .338 and OPS’d .928 with 15 extra-base hits and 34 stolen bases. He also walked 21 times to help push his OBP up to .421. His contact skills seemed only to keep getting better. Here is Holliday racking up his tenth three-hit game of the season on August 30:
Jackson Holliday continues to rake with his 10th three hit game this season.pic.twitter.com/CyCVldWmVn— Prospect Dugout (@prospectdugout) August 30, 2023
The only ceiling left for him to bust through was Triple-A, and lo and behold, on September 5, the Orioles front office made that call, too. In 18 games with Norfolk, Holliday slashed .267/.396/.400 with a .796 OPS, two home runs, four doubles, and an impressive 17 stolen bases. Triple-A appears to be the only level that could make this precocious youngster struggle at all, but even there he walked almost as many times as he struck out (16 to 17).
Asked to name his 2023 Prospect of the Year, Keith Law picked Holliday, offering the simple explanation, “Who else could it be?” It’s just incredible what this youngster is doing. Defensively, he looks great, with a strong, accurate arm, athleticism, and range. And he’s a beast at the plate, with contact ability and power from the left side.
Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?
Duh. The only question is when. If Holliday has a cold spring training, he might start the year with Norfolk to prove he can do to Triple-A pitching what he did at all the other levels.
If he’s ready right out of the gate, though, then Mike Elias & Co. will have a bottleneck in the infield. Would Gunnar Henderson, Most Valuable Oriole of 2023 and presumptive AL Rookie of the Year, get moved over to third base? (According to BaseballSavant, Henderson was worth 0 outs above average at the shortstop position, although I believe this is dragged down by a slow defensive start early in the year.)
It’s fortunate that, as our GM said last month, “It’s all I think about every day of my life, is how to do this stuff.” We, on the other hand, just need to sit back and prepare ourselves for a full season of Jackson Holliday. Good problems to have.
2023 prospect reviews: Alex Pham/Trace Bright, Billy Cook/John Rhodes, International Prospects, Carter Baumler/Seth Johnson, Creed Willems, Justin Armbruester, Max Wagner, Jud Fabian, Mac Horvath, Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott, Dylan Beavers, Enrique Bradfield Jr., Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, Samuel Basallo, Coby Mayo, Heston Kjerstad, Colton Cowser