Elias lays out reasons for Orioles' decision to reassign Holliday

SARASOTA, Fla. – Three months after Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias described Jackson Holliday as “definitely a very strong possibility” to make the Opening Day roster, baseball’s No. 1 prospect was told that he’s beginning the season at Triple-A.

A promotion that wasn’t etched in stone crumbled in Sarasota. The dust was thick.

Holliday was counted among seven cuts but got the bulk of the attention and fan reaction after batting .311/.354/.600 with three doubles, two triples, two home runs and six RBIs and 15 games. His comfort level expanded at second base, where he figured to get the vast majority of his work with Gunnar Henderson entrenched as the starting shortstop.

“Obviously a very tough decision on all these guys,” Elias said, making certain to include outfielders Heston Kjerstad and Kyle Stowers, who were optioned, and infielders Coby Mayo and Connor Norby, pitcher Albert Suárez and catcher David Bañuelos, who were reassigned to get the camp roster down to 38.

“We have a lot of players with a lot of really good statistics in camp, and a lot of them were sent out today, so that’s hard because these guys have put themselves in such a good position in terms of their performance and the kind of shape they came in. Making spring training evaluations, it’s more art than science, and all these guys did a great job of putting themselves in the thick of the competition and distinguishing themselves, even with this talented camp.”

Holliday was a standout, including his grand slam in Dunedin. He walked three times and struck out 15 but did a much better job later in camp of getting deep in counts against quality pitching. Elias circled back a few times to Holliday’s 18 games with Norfolk, a lack of experience against left-handers – the Orioles could see quite a few early, including the Angels’ Patrick Sandoval on Opening Day – and a position change.

“He is way, way ahead of the curve,” Elias said. “He’s 20 years old, he just turned 20 a couple months ago. He’s reached Triple-A, he’s moved through the minors at a pace we haven’t seen in a couple of decades, arguably. And when we think about development and completing the development of a player of his talent, and it’s something we have some experience doing – we’ve done it now with Adley (Rutschman) and Gunnar, and guys like Jordan Westburg – there’s a lot of considerations involved so that when they do start their major league careers, you want them to be able to stay. And guys of that marquee caliber, you want them to be able to start their careers in full-blown, full-time roles.

“Because of how fast Jackson moved and his lack of professional experience ... he’s not faced a ton of major league-quality or even Triple-A-quality left-handed pitching, and that’s something that’s going to be thrust in his face when he’s in the American League East – whether that’s a starter, whether that’s the reliever they bring in to match up against him in the seventh inning. And on top of that, we’ve got a position change undergoing, and it’s something that we’re fully optimistic about. He’s a quick study, he’s got the tools to play second base, he made strides here in this camp. But I think a plan of having him play 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 that’s ready to go in the American League East and Yankee Stadium in a night game.

“He’s very, very close. He’s very ahead of schedule. He’s done remarkably well. We couldn’t be more excited about his future, but you’re talking about the development of a player who has the opportunity to be one of the better, if not best players in the league, and we’re very professional about how we develop guys. I point to our track record with this group that I mentioned, and we feel that this will be in the long-term best interest of everyone involved to allow him to have a little bit more Triple-A experience for those reasons. And I’m sure he’s going to do well and put in the work as he always does. He's going to keep plying his trade.”

Holliday had 15 plate appearances this spring against lefties and went 2-for-14 with nine strikeouts and his grand slam off Yusei Kikuchi.

“I don’t expect him to master left-handed pitching in Triple-A, but it’s just something, if you look at his experience thus far in the minor leagues, he just hasn’t had a lot of,” Elias said. “We saw here in camp, too, as we were evaluating him, and I think it’s something that’s going to be important so that he’s not a part-time contributor in his early tenure here with this team, because we’ve got a lot of other talented infielders. We’ve got some really good ones from the right side of the plate, too, and Brandon (Hyde) is going to be out there pushing buttons, matching up, trying to squeak out wins on a nightly basis.

“This is all taken into consideration: player development, roster composition, where he’s at on his timeline, which is amazingly ahead of the curve that anyone could have imagined, even when we drafted him first overall. This is where it landed. But by no means would I characterize this as a decision that we didn’t meet about extensively and agonize over with coaches, front office, everybody who has a voice in this process. But I’m confident that it will play out as the right thing to do.”

Holliday and most of the other players subtracted had packed up and left the complex before media clubhouse availability.

This is the second consecutive spring when the Orioles made a late cut of an elite prospect that reverberated through camp. Starting pitcher Grayson Rodriguez was sent down and later made a second trip to Norfolk before blossoming in the second half.

Rodriguez registered a 7.04 ERA in five starts. Holliday mostly had favorable statistics. But they met the same fate.

“All of these guys - Coby Mayo, Kyle Stowers – I mean, look at their spring numbers. This isn’t about shortcomings of spring training statistics or hustle or attitude by any means,” Elias said. “We’ve got a very talented roster now with a lot of competition. We’ve got good veteran players on this team, and being a top prospect in the minor leagues does not mean that you leapfrog your skills over guys who have been in the major leagues for a few years and have a lot of positive experience and a lot of stability to draw from in their production. So, I don’t want to characterize this as any type of shortcoming of what people could have done in this spring training camp to make the team, specifically with this group and the young guys that we sent out today. But I think we had questions coming into this camp about certain guys’ readiness in certain aspects of the game.

“He’s going to benefit from more time in Triple-A and he’s going to be a better player and a more complete player when he comes up because of it. We’re going to be able to deploy him in a broader, more everyday, every-inning way once we get more seasoning in those regards.”

Elias had raised hopes at the Winter Meetings that Holliday would be introduced on March 28. It was the biggest story in Nashville, maybe edging out the signing of veteran closer Craig Kimbrel.

“He’s had a good chance of breaking with the team the whole time,” Elias said. “I mean, here we are. We’re three days away from Opening Day. All these guys, we had agonizing discussions over what to do with them. It turned out the rest of the team showed up in great shape, by and large.

“For a lot of these guys, they put themselves in great positions. Almost all of them are ahead of schedule in terms of when they were drafted and how they’re doing, and we have a lot of good players with more major league experience to draw from, and these guys are not finished products themselves. So, you put all that into an equation, and it’s just not quite their time in some cases, but these are not permanent decisions, either. We’re setting up for the Angels, the Royals, and we’ll take it from there.

“This is the first homestand. I do expect that we’re going to see a lot of left-handed pitching early, and our division in particular, it’s always there. This is not an insignificant topic. It was a big theme with Gunnar Henderson when he was struggling and he came up. This is something that we’re careful about.”

Elias said the club is going into the season “in a sprint,” suggesting it can’t use the majors to further development, and he again cited the right-handed infield options. Tyler Nevin remains in camp and is batting .346 with a .882 OPS. Hyde confirmed yesterday that Jorge Mateo made the club. Westburg and Ramón Urías also hit from the right side.

“There are going to be situations that come up very fast where it’s a left-on-left matchup and I don’t think it would be fair to Brandon to have orders of, don’t pinch-hit for this guy, don’t do that,” Elias said. “We want these players to be as well-rounded as they possibly can, especially guys of this caliber who are on a course to be cornerstones of the franchise.”

The organization has no concerns over how Holliday will handle being a late cut after so much hype. Nothing seems to rattle him, including the stream of media to his locker.

“He’s done nothing but perform and work and be a sponge,” Elias said. “I think all these guys were disappointed by the news this morning, but he’s a worker and he knows how close he is and what he can do to polish off his development. He’s not somebody I would want to bet against tackling any challenge head on.”

Service-time manipulation naturally came up during the media scrum, whether it factored into the decision to reassign Holliday and delay starting his clock. He still can gain a year if chosen Rookie of the Year in the American League.

“No,” Elias said. “It’s unfortunate that we have the specter of that to talk about. I think this is about an organization that prides itself on developing elite talents, putting a player in the best position for his own long-term success and for the short- and long-term success of the team and the roster that he’s on.”

The final roster might not be settled until the morning of the March 28 opener against the Angels at Camden Yards.

“I want to be clear that we have not decided on an Opening Day roster and there are still decisions to be made in terms of who exactly will be on the 13-man pitching staff and the 13-man position-player core, but we made some moves today to narrow down those decisions, and we still have a lot of internal options for those. But this is also the time period where there’s a lot of activity around the league, a lot going on externally, and it’s a big part of our jobs to monitor that,” Elias said.

“We want to be in a position to stay nimble in this upcoming week before Opening Day as we see what opportunities present themselves outside the organization, too.”

This is why Elias is hesitant to talk specifically about players like Nevin or right-handed-hitting outfielder Ryan McKenna.

McKenna and outfielder Colton Cowser said they haven’t been told whether they’re on the club. Cowser seems like a lock.

“I don’t want to sprinkle too many tidbits or tea leaves about who might comprise some of the roster spots that are still up for grabs, because it’s not fair to anybody,” Elias said. “Everyone’s kind of wondering, and that includes me. These decisions haven’t been made, we’re having discussions. We’re in opt-out territory now around the league. There’s going to be free agents, there’s going to be players placed on waivers, there’s going to be all kinds of stuff.”

Stowers led the Orioles with seven home runs and 14 RBIs and was an animal against left-handers but didn’t make a second straight Opening Day roster.

“Control what I can control,” he said. “For me, I’m pretty tough on myself, so I always feel like there’s more that I could have done. … But I feel like I had a good camp and made their decision hard. The cards didn’t go my way this time, but I will say last year, broke camp with the team and then less favorable things happened after that. Just because this year I didn’t break with the team doesn’t mean that it’s not going to be a good year for me in the big leagues.

“I’m bummed, I’m really bummed. Surprised? I would be lying to you guys if I said this possibility didn’t cross my mind going into camp. I’m aware of the state of the team. There’s so many good players in this clubhouse. I think that’s the double-edged sword of it all. Got good veterans and good young guys, so it’s not an easy roster to make, but hey, that’s the big leagues. … Didn’t get it to go my way this time. Doesn’t mean it’s going to be a reflection on the rest of the year.”

Elias said it was a “close call and a tough decision.” He lumped Stowers and Kjerstad while talking about different player profiles that were better fits early in the season.

* Kolten Wong, a left-handled hitting second baseman, opted out of his contract today and the Orioles have 48 hours to add him to the roster or trade or release him.

“Gave them the news today and it’s their decision what they’re going to do now,” Wong said.

“Got 10 years in this already, I don’t plan on going down to the minor leagues after this. Whatever happens, happens. It’s been a fun time to see all these young guys, see the talent coming up.”

Asked about Holliday, Wong said, “He’s a stud, man. You’ve seen what he’s done. He’s going to be an incredible player. I think sometimes the business aspect is how the game gets ran. He’s going to be up very soon, we all know that. Amazing spring training for him.”

Wong expanded on the business aspect part, saying, “There’s a lot of tangibles that could be playing in effect. Usually, that’s how it goes, 20 years old. He’s got a lot more time of playing baseball left, so we’ll see what the decision is.”

* Elias is hopeful that Kyle Bradish and John Means can return from the injured list early in the first half.

“When I talked about (Bradish) at the beginning of camp, I said everything is pointed in the right direction and moving in the right direction, and thankfully that still is exactly the case. And now we’re six, seven weeks later and he’s checked more boxes,” Elias said.

“This is not going to be over until it’s over. This is a whole rehab process that we’ve got to complete, but things continue to be pointed in the right direction, as they have since Day One of this camp. Now that we’ve banked all this time and a couple benchmarks, I feel even better about it.”

I’ll have more to post later on today’s moves.

* Corbin Burnes gets his last start before Opening Day. He’s allowed 11 earned runs (12 total) and 14 hits in 10 2/3 innings and surrendered five home runs in his five outings.

For the Orioles

Cedric Mullins CF
Adley Rutschman C
Anthony Santander DH
Ryan O’Hearn 1B
Austin Hays LF
Ramón Urías 3B
Colton Cowser RF
Jordan Westburg 2B
Jorge Mateo SS

Corbin Burnes RHP

Dillon Tate and Cionel Pérez also are pitching tonight.

More on Orioles roster cuts and pending decisions ...
Roster moves include optioning of Kjerstad and Sto...

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