Times are good for the Baltimore Orioles and their fan base. The major league team is leading the American League, poised for their first playoff berth since 2016, and on pace for the organization’s first 100-win season since 1980. At the same time, the club’s farm system is reliably churning out worthwhile big leaguers with no signs of slowing down.
The Triple-A Norfolk Tides may have the most talented roster in all of minor league baseball. Joey Ortiz is flashing the leather and OPS’ing .976 at shortstop. Heston Kjerstad leads the team with a .575 slugging from the left side of the plate. Connor Norby is showing off his power again with 15 bombs this season. Coby Mayo is finding his footing after a huge season in Bowie. Not to mention DL Hall is back, throwing flames in the bullpen. You get the idea. The team is stacked, and any one of them could make a push for Baltimore sometime this month.
But it’s down in Double-A where many have suddenly turned their attention. That’s where shortstop Jackson Holliday is looking like a varsity player running circles around the JV.
Holliday, the top pick in the 2022, is on his third level of the season, having already zoomed through Low-A Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen. Now in Double-A Bowie, he still isn’t facing much of a challenge as he he boasts a .396/.448/.642 batting line with three home runs, five walks, and eight strikeouts through 13 games.
Still only 19 years old, Holliday’s ascent over the last 18 months has been dramatic. As Keith Law explained in The Athletic last month, Holliday went from a player being considered in the back of the first round, to an option at number one overall, and now perhaps the top prospect in the entire sport. He has checked almost every possible box in his first full professional season...almost.
Chatter around a potential big league debut for Holliday this season has risen above a whisper. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias was asked about it in late July and he said that he “wouldn’t rule it out, but I mean, I don’t rule out anything.” Holliday himself said something similar weeks earlier. According to a tweet from MASN’s Steve Melewski, Holliday explained “That would be quite something. But I wouldn’t put it past myself at this point. Who knows.”
Neither of those quotes is indicative of anything imminent. But Holliday’s performance has been so good that the question is worthy of being asked. And fans are certainly starting to wonder about it on Twitter and elsewhere. So, let’s talk about it.
First things first. Could Holliday be called up this season? Of course. He is a member of the Orioles organization, and he’s playing really, really well at Double-A. Players do jump right from that level to the big leagues on occasion. Manny Machado famously made the leap during his age-19 season in 2012 to man third base for the wild card-bound O’s. This is not uncharted territory.
For those concerned that a possible promotion would spoil Holliday’s rookie status for 2024 and could therefore cost the O’s an opportunity at an extra draft pick, have no fear. Gunnar Henderson played his first big league game on August 31 last year, but there wasn’t enough time for him to get the playing time necessary to ditch his rookie status in 2022. He’s still technically a “rookie” right now, and he is in line to net the O’s some draft pick compensation if/when he places in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Holliday—not to mention just about any other prospect they call up the rest of the way—would likely receive similar treatment in this scenario.
But as good as Holliday has been, and despite the roster gymnastics the Orioles can pull to keep him rookie-eligible next season, it doesn’t mean that it makes a whole lot of sense right now.
When Holliday does get the call, it will be with an everyday role in mind. That role just doesn’t exist right now. The Orioles infield, as assembled, is packed. Gunnar Henderson is playing everyday. Jordan Westburg continues to push for daily lineup inclusion. Ramón Urías has a Gold Glove. Adam Frazier has provided veteran leadership all season long. Jorge Mateo—for all his faults—adds a speed and defense element that could be valuable come October.
Then there is the rookie struggle window to navigate. Holliday has been a quick study at every level, but that doesn’t mean he would hit the ground running in Baltimore. Henderson, Adley Rutschman, and Colton Cowser have all come to the big leagues with impressive pedigrees, and each of them has struggled initially. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see Holliday have a similar experience. But it’s tougher to work around that in September when the team is chasing a division title and has several veteran alternatives in the clubhouse.
Adding Holliday now also complicates the 40-man roster. Obviously, if he is promoted and becomes an instant success, this is a good problem to have. But if not, it is simply a 40-man spot occupied far earlier than necessary. That makes everything Elias tries to do in the offseason slightly more difficult because the roster will naturally be less flexible. Unless the organization is absolutely sure Holliday is going to be an instant sensation that upgrades their 2023 team in a significant way, then it’s a tough call to make.
There is little doubt that Holliday is going to make a big impact in Baltimore sometime in the near future. Fans are clamoring for him, the GM is being asked about him, and his own confidence makes anything feel possible. But it also feels like the timing and roster construction aren’t set up for him to make his ascendence to Charm City quite yet. That won’t be true in 2024, though, when some offseason movement should clear the way for the youngster to carve out a full-time role on what should be a World Series-contending squad.