At the end of the deliberations throughout spring training, the internal verdict around what to do with Jackson Holliday continued to evade the Orioles decision-makers.

The 20-year-old, baseball’s top prospect, had performed well during the spring. But so did nearly all of Baltimore’s players. And, although Holliday’s .311 average and .954 on-base-plus-slugging percentage were positive indicators for major league success, he was still undergoing a position change to second base and developing his skills against left-handed pitchers.

Six days before opening day, the Orioles sent Holliday to Triple-A Norfolk.

But, just two weeks into the season, Holliday is here. Baltimore promoted the infielder after 10 minor league games, plugging him into the lineup immediately at Fenway Park and, on Friday, Camden Yards for his home debut.

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In an interview with The Baltimore Banner, general manager Mike Elias explained the reasoning behind calling up Holliday now. There are a multitude of factors, including the string of left-handed starting pitchers the Orioles saw to begin the season and the realization that Holliday’s strong spring performance was carrying over into games that counted in Norfolk.

“I’m not perfect at these decisions, and sometimes you have a borderline decision,” Elias said. “I’ll tend to err on the side of the one that’s more easily correctable, reversible, and that’s kind of where we are right now with this case. But we wanted him up here on this 2024 team because we think he’s going to be a big help for this 2024 team, and we think this team has as much potential as any in baseball.”

The verdict at the end of the spring wasn’t unanimous. But when Holliday opened the season hitting .333 with a 1.077 OPS (including a home run against a left-handed pitcher), the belief became more concentrated. Holliday was ready.

Add that start to the fact Baltimore had a need for a left-handed-hitting second baseman, and Holliday received the call late Tuesday.

“He had a good camp. It wasn’t a perfect camp. And then the whole team had good camps,” Elias said, adding that he doesn’t call spring training games “real baseball.” But the option to leave Holliday with the Tides to begin the season was a low-risk one.

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“We felt we could err in that direction with the ability to reverse it pretty easily, and I would characterize his two weeks — or 10 games — down there as reassuring [about] what we saw in spring training,” Elias said. “The trends we saw in spring training were carrying over into the regular season.”

Over the first 10 games of the season, the Orioles faced five left-handed starters. The front office didn’t think introducing Holliday to the rigors of the majors with a series of difficult matchups was an appealing option.

In Norfolk, Holliday went 4-for-10 against lefties. He also played concentrated time at second base, a position where he will continue to grow. During the spring, Elias said, Holliday didn’t see many balls while playing second. That changed in Norfolk, with Holliday receiving more plays his direction.

Jackson Holliday signs baseballs for fans at Fenway Park in Boston. (Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Those 10 games for Norfolk didn’t check any final boxes, per se. But they allowed Elias and the rest of the front office to trust Holliday could handle nearly everyday playing time in Baltimore.

“I wouldn’t say that we feel he achieved a change or development in this time, but he gave us more assurance from what we saw from him in the first 10 days that he would be ready — or at least ready to not be harmed — by doing what we’re seeing him do right now,” Elias said, “which is learning the major leagues on the fly at age 20, with a position change and with a kind of imbalance in his abilities against right-handed pitching and left-handed pitching right now.”

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Holliday is in line for a full season of major league service time, barring a return to the minors. Baltimore was only a few days away from Holliday falling under that threshold — less than a full season of service time would potentially push off his free agency an extra year.

Elias was adamant there was no service time manipulation at play when he decided against having Holliday make the opening day roster, and promoting Holliday when he did reinforces that. There’s a built-in advantage to having a player reach a full season of service time as a rookie.

The league’s prospect promotion incentive gives teams draft pick compensation should a top-100 prospect earn a full season of service time and win his league’s Rookie of the Year award.

“We don’t get too wrapped up in it,” Elias said, because in his experience most prospects aren’t ready for the majors within the first two weeks of the season. But it worked out with Gunnar Henderson. And, should Holliday perform at a high enough level, he could be in line to deliver the Orioles another draft pick.

“In this case, it’s definitely something on your mind when you look at the calendar,” Elias said. “It would be ridiculous to say that it isn’t. But that’s not something the baseball calendar is going to lend itself to, worrying about that all the time with every one of these cases.”

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At the same time, Elias is braced for the likely possibility that Holliday will get off to a slow start in the majors. That’s the case for many prospects, and he pointed to the first month or so for Henderson, Adley Rutschman, Colton Cowser and Grayson Rodriguez. Those struggles are natural.

But once he finds his footing, the benefits could be huge. And, with sights set on postseason baseball, having Holliday go through those bumps now is prudent.

“Our priority right now is 2024,” Elias said. “You can’t solely be focused on that. That would be very irresponsible in my job and it could drive the franchise back into a bad state if we behave that way consistently, but 2024 is at the top of the list as we assess any type of decision now, and I think we bring a young kid up like Jackson, especially at age 20, we’re going to expect that he’s not going to be his best self right away. It’s going to take him some time to adjust to the major leagues, and part of doing that early is hoping that we’ll be getting the benefit of that later in this 2024 season as he hits his stride.”

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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