SARASOTA, Fla. — In December, standing in a crowded conference room at the winter meetings, Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said top-ranked prospect Jackson Holliday had a “strong possibility” of making the opening day roster. In January, standing inside the B&O Warehouse in Baltimore, Elias echoed that opinion. He did so again in February, when the Orioles began spring training.

And yet on Friday, after watching Holliday produce eye-catching numbers throughout spring training, Elias offered a different assessment.

Holliday, the No. 1 prospect in baseball, isn’t making the team on opening day.

The departure from a winter full of backing came as a surprise Friday, particularly when Holliday hit .311 with a .954 on-base-plus-slugging percentage with no errors in the field.

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Elias said he and the coaching staff “agonize[d] over” the decision. He called the infielder “way, way ahead of the curve” for a 20-year-old and said Holliday is “very, very close.” Elias also rejected the notion that this move has anything to do with preserving Holliday’s service time (the way MLB contracts work, the Orioles can keep him under team control for an extra season and save money during the arbitration process by limiting the number of games he appears in this year).

“This isn’t about shortcomings of spring training, statistics or hustle or attitude,” Elias said. “By no means.”

Then why isn’t Holliday on the opening day roster?

Elias used Baltimore’s recent track record in developing top prospects to justify the decision to send Holliday to Triple-A Norfolk. He also pointed to the fact Holliday hasn’t faced high-level left-handed pitching much in his career. Finally, he said he wanted to give Holliday more time to adjust to playing second base (he grew up playing shortstop).

“This is a 20-year-old who has played 18 games in Triple-A and is also in a position change and has not faced or produced — or had the opportunity to produce — a ton against upper-level minor league left-handed pitching in particular,” Elias said. “This is where we’ve landed for now.”

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Of course, the Orioles have only themselves to blame for Holliday making his position change now. They’ve known since they drafted him No. 1 overall in 2022 that he’s joining a team with strong players at shortstop and third, yet they gave him only 20 games at second base last season.

From the start of August 2023 — when it became clear Jordan Westburg would likely hold down a place in Baltimore’s infield, leaving one infield spot open in 2024 — Holliday played second base only four times. He played shortstop 17 times.

The Orioles could’ve gotten ahead of Holliday’s learning curve then. Instead, Holliday entered camp under a close watch at second — and under that close watch he still performed at a high level.

Jackson Holliday has been learning to play second base during spring training after the Orioles gave him few opportunities to play the position in the minors last year. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“We’ve got a position change undergoing, and it’s something that, you know, we’re fully optimistic about,” Elias said. “He’s a quick study. He’s got the tools to play second base. He made strides here in this camp. But I think the plan of having him playing in Triple-A and playing second base five, six days in a row to start the season is going to do a lot both for his confidence and ours that he’s ready to go in the American League East and Yankee Stadium in a night game.”

Holliday struggled this spring against left-handed pitching, especially early. He finished 2-for-14 against southpaws with nine strikeouts. But later in the spring, when Holliday seemed more at ease in the box, he blasted a grand slam against Yusei Kikuchi — a major league left-hander for the Toronto Blue Jays.

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Holliday had no problem against left-handed pitchers in the minors, finishing 2023 with a .296 average against them in 124 plate appearances compared to his .331 average against righties. But Elias felt Holliday hasn’t seen enough high-level left-handed pitching.

Asked whether Holliday could learn how to hit lefties by playing in the majors, Elias said he didn’t “think it would be fair to Brandon [Hyde] to have orders to, ‘Don’t pinch hit for this guy, don’t do that,’” indicating that the manager might be limited in approaching key matchups against left-handed relievers if the point is to have Holliday learn to battle left on left. (In the minors, it is common for managers to eschew making decisions that might help win a game in favor of putting players in positions that are beneficial for their development.)

“We want these players to be as well rounded as they possibly can be, especially guys of this caliber who are on a course to be cornerstones of the franchise,” Elias said. “We want them to be as complete as they can possibly be by the time they come up, and that’s not going to be 100% completion — there’s going to be a lot of development for anyone once they’re in the majors, too, and that’s a whole ’nother ballgame.

“So that’s difficult enough, and it’s even more difficult if there are boxes you haven’t even checked at the Triple-A level,” Elias continued.

There are examples of players skipping a level and sticking. Manny Machado arrived even younger than Holliday without playing in Triple-A. He converted in the majors from shortstop to third base, and Machado did just fine. Julio Rodríguez also skipped Triple-A, made the Seattle Mariners’ opening day roster and won the AL Rookie of the Year award.

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More recently, the Orioles have taken a slow-play approach with prospects. Gunnar Henderson was tested at second base and first before the shortstop was brought to the majors after 65 games at the Triple-A level.

Holliday is still in line for a debut this season. The wait must go on, however, for at least a while longer.

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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