SARASOTA, Fla. — On his first day in Sarasota, Jackson Holliday stood outside the batting cages and took it all in. He didn’t speak — at least not much, still the fresh-faced 19-year-old taking in his first major league spring training.
In particular, he watched Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson take hacks, peering through the twines of the netting around the cage at two up-and-coming stars. The former was selected first overall, just like Holliday. The latter reached the big leagues as a 21-year-old, a loose target Holliday has set for his own arrival with the Orioles.
“I watched them last year and I really like both of their swings and how they carry themselves,” Holliday said, recounting the batting practice session in February. “That was a cool moment.”
Of course, none of this is entirely new for Holliday.
He’s experiencing the grind of it himself now, but he was around his dad, Matt Holliday, in spring trainings for as long as he can remember. Jackson Holliday and his brother used to shag fly balls and watch from outside the cage as their father — an All-Star seven times over the course of his 15-year career — hit. Back in the clubhouse, they watched their father receive and dole out the clubhouse banter.
The only thing that’s unique about this experience, then, is that Holliday is on his own. He’s the ballplayer, the one who draws more attention than most teenagers would when they enter late in a spring training game. The pitch of the Ed Smith Stadium crowd when Holliday stood in for his first at-bat last week rose several octaves when he put on the jets and slid into second base for a hustle double, losing his helmet on the way.
Eyes will follow him. They’ll follow him for his skillset and flowing blonde hair and his status as only the third top overall pick in Orioles franchise history, following Rutschman (2019) and Ben McDonald (1989). And at 19, he’s dealing with that attention by not paying it attention.
“Honestly, I don’t really feel all that much pressure. I don’t think about it,” Holliday said. “I’m just here to play baseball at the end of the day. It’s my job now. The No. 1 pick is in the past. Now, we’re just trying to get there as fast as possible to help the Orioles.”
That drive began last August, when Holliday arrived at Low-A Delmarva and blasted a run-scoring, ground-rule double for his first professional hit at an affiliate. He finished that 12-game stint at the end of the year with a .439 on-base percentage, and while Holliday could begin the year back with the Shorebirds or in High-A Aberdeen, he targets a swift rise.
By the end of this season, Holliday said, he’d like to be in Double-A Bowie. And next season? Or the season after that?
“Next year, hopefully I’ll be able to play good enough to make it up,” Holliday said, referencing the major leagues. “I’d say two to three years is my goal, personally. We’ll see what happens.”
In the time since that first batting practice session beside Henderson and Rutschman, Holliday has watched others closely, such as Coby Mayo, Connor Norby and Colton Cowser.
When Mayo is at the dish, Holliday just sits back and admires how far the third base prospect can smash a baseball. Norby excels at hitting to the opposite field, and Cowser has a plate approach and intuition Holliday likes to study.
But others have watched Holliday, too, even though he’s the youngest player in camp.
“He’s a very mature hitter for his age,” Mayo said. “Just really good feel for hitting to all fields, and he works hard in the cage, and it’s cool to see that from a 19-year-old.”
“He’s a really impressive young man. First big league camp, 19, high school at this time last year,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “It just feels like he’s been out there a long time, and he’s just so young. I don’t think he’s feeling any pressure or intimidated by playing in any of these games. He looks comfortable out there.”
Holliday tracked a popup in the sun, ranging into the outfield, without any panic in Tuesday’s contest. He’s turned a few double plays at shortstop. He has entered late in four of Baltimore’s five spring training games thus far, and an error Wednesday was the first and only misstep seen thus far.
Neither Holliday nor Hyde know how long he’ll be in major league camp. For the time Holliday is here, though, he’ll continue to watch closely, knowing a return to big league camp won’t be far off.
“Being able to compete with these guys and being able to be around them every day,” Holliday said, “is going to be very beneficial for me to shoot up the system.”