SARASOTA, Fla. — It took all of one day here to see the Jackson Holliday I watched climb through every level of the Orioles’ farm system last year — the patient approach, the picturesque swing and weight transfer, the innate sense that he belonged where he was.

He won’t make the club based on live batting practice, but if we are to believe the Orioles’ brass on this one, he certainly can make the club’s opening day roster based on how his spring goes.

We’ve seen before with Adley Rutschman, whose chances of making the club were dashed by an injury at the beginning of 2022, and Grayson Rodriguez, who had the same opportunity presented the same way Holliday’s is now last spring but began the year in the minors as the Orioles favored other options, that such opportunities aren’t guarantees.

Holliday is fighting in a crowded infield for opportunities, with fellow homegrown talents Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg in the mix alongside mainstays Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo. He also has the unfortunate reality of baseball’s economic system to contend with. Spending anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months in the minors to begin 2024 has the potential to keep Holliday in Orioles colors ahead of free agency longer and keep his salary lower longer.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Strip all that away, though, and Holliday has a part to play in this. He is going to play a ton in Grapefruit League action, which begins Saturday, and have a chance to make an impression with every ground ball, at-bat or dugout conversation he has.

Knowing what I do about him as a player, here’s a breakdown of what he does that could help him make the team — or end up working against him.

His batting eye

This time last year, the Orioles knew they had a potentially special player in Holliday — what they couldn’t have known was just how advanced his eye and approach at the plate were. He walked 17.4% of the time across four levels, he didn’t chase often, and he made a ton of contact in the zone.

It’s fair to assume Holliday is going to continue that in spring training, where he’s going to see a steady stream of major league-caliber pitchers and high-caliber arms (albeit ones that are still getting ready for the season). It would be a bad time — given the stakes for his career — for Holliday to start getting himself out on pitches outside the zone, so continuing to show the ability to work an at-bat will certainly go in his favor.

The Orioles are a long way from the days of having no on-base capability whatsoever. Now, they have it in Rutschman, Henderson and a handful of others both on their roster and on their way to making it. But spring training can be different than games. It’s still a primary skill that Holliday can demonstrate. Although it might not lead to flashy numbers, the consistency with which he can lay off fringe pitches will endear Holliday to the Orioles’ front office and staff even more — and considering pitchers are working themselves into game form and may not command the ball as well in Florida as they will during the season, those opportunities should present themselves.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The possible drawback, however, is that Holliday’s patience hurts him — that he ends up taking pitches he can drive or that even though they’re outside the zone umpires call pitches that he takes strikes anyway. It’s spring training for everyone. Holliday is hard to force out of his plan at the plate, so he may not waver if that happens, but to be selective can at times be a detriment. I think in Holliday’s case it’ll still work in his favor but, until robot umpires become permanent, even the most selective approach has its risks.

Baltimore Orioles prospect Jackson Holliday takes his at-bat during the team’s spring training practice at Ed Smith Stadium on February 20, 2024.
Holliday's hard-hit-ball rate increased nearly 20 percentage points to 45.5% last year. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

His quality of contact

Of the many things Holliday improved over the course of 2023, his quality of contact was perhaps the most significant. In his pro debut, he hit more pop-ups than the Orioles would have liked, and they sent him home on a mission to optimize his contact with more line drives and add strength to his frame. He did both, and in 2023 he increased his line drive rate from 13.5% to 25.8% and cut his fly ball rate from 38.5% to 22.5%. His hard-hit rate jumped from 26.1% to 45.5%.

Those are all great trend lines for someone who is still physically developing and growing into his strength, and Holliday continuing that in front of manager Brandon Hyde and the major league staff will go a long way toward putting him on the club quickly.

There’s a lot of value in showing you can consistently impact the ball, particularly in Hyde’s eyes — just look at the impact that had for Heston Kjerstad in last year’s camp. If Holliday can translate his selective approach into consistently finding pitches to drive, results or not, he’s going to give himself an advantage over anyone else who wants to make the team on the infield.

The drawback, of course, is that all of those improvements were over the course of a long season over several levels. Although Holliday will get plenty of opportunities at the plate this spring, we’re talking about a small sample in which his continued improvements in contact quality might not show up. He can be pitched around, miss his pitch on occasion, or simply not make the contact he wants for a short spell and have the numbers not back up the kind of player he’s become.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Orioles have sent top prospects with great spring stats down to Triple-A to start the season before and probably will again. But, if they’re taking a holistic view of where Holliday is, maybe this could be a deciding factor.

View post on Twitter

His defensive acumen

Holliday’s climb through the minors last year was mostly down to his bat, but he also showed an ability to defend at a high level no matter which station of the minors he was in. Tim DeJohn, the Orioles’ minor league infield coordinator, outlined what made him stand out on defense to me last year and called him a future Gold Glove-caliber middle infielder.

It seems Holliday is going to play a lot of second base this spring, which makes sense with Westburg and Henderson ahead of him on the left side of the infield, and all the adjectives DeJohn used to describe Holliday last year — flowy, syrupy, with good footwork and little wasted movement — will serve him well at second.

If Holliday can take to the new position as quickly as he’s taken to, well, everything else in his professional baseball career, the Orioles will have one fewer major impediment to bringing him to Baltimore. Hyde has always emphasized defense above all else, and Holliday will have plenty of chances to show he can be trusted at second.

Baltimore Orioles prospect Jackson Holliday flashes a thumbs up as he warms up during the team’s spring training practice at Ed Smith Stadium on February 20, 2024. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

The drawback, though, is his relative lack of experience there. Holliday essentially played second base once a week last season in the minors, which makes sense considering he was always the best option at shortstop, but he’s played 215 1/3 innings at second base in his minor league career. There’s not really a track record for his defending at that position, so if he’s not as steady there as the Orioles want, that could be used against him.

Whether that should be valid is another conversation. That really goes for any of these. Holliday will almost certainly hold his own this spring, and he would if he was on the club for opening day as well. But, if we’re going to believe he’s being evaluated on his performance, these are the things that will be worth watching.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

More From The Banner