Elias on Holliday's "little hiccup" and how baseball's top prospect can benefit from it

Jackson Holliday met with Orioles officials earlier today and was sent back to Triple-A Norfolk with a specific agenda. Areas of improvement were detailed. They just weren’t shared with everyone.

Executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias met with the media today for about 20 minutes and explained the club’s decision to option Holliday, baseball’s No. 1 prospect who went 2-for-34 with one RBI, two walks, 18 strikeouts and five runs scored in 10 games.

The inability to get hot at the plate was a prime factor, of course. No complaints about his defense at second base, a relatively new position. The Orioles will be facing another wave of left-handed starters, which would have put Holliday on the bench. And his struggles were harder for a contending team to overlook than perhaps the 110-loss group from the rebuilding days.

There isn’t a firm timeline for Holliday’s return, but he apparently won’t be rushed back to the majors at the first whiff of success.

“I want to emphasize that this is a kid that’s doing extremely well and is at the very infancy of his major league career,” Elias said. “I don’t know if anyone else from his age group or draft class, high school hitters, are even out of A-ball levels yet. I want to stress that he’s doing very, very well and way ahead of the curve. And this was a decision out of camp that was very borderline at the time. Got a lot of opinions. We ended up sending him down and he hit really, really well in Triple-A for a couple of series, about two weeks, and so we decided to call him up and see how the translation to the major leagues would go on a short-term basis, and what we have seen here and had seen led me to the evaluation and the opinion that he would benefit from going back and adjusting there rather than doing it here in real time.

“We’ve got, it looks like, another slate of left-handed starters coming up, too. Pretty heavy. So it probably meant a lot of time sitting out of the starting lineup for him during those games, and he needs repetitions. So I think the bright side of this is, he got very intense, very specific feedback from major league pitching. He’s a brilliant talent and a very sharp kid, and I expect he’s going to go and implement those adjustments really quickly, but we felt that steady playing time in Triple-A was the place for that for a number of different reasons, including, like I said, his projected playing time for the next couple weeks, but also the fact that we’ve got a team in a very tight race in the American League East and it’s just not an optimal place to be doing player development for a kid like him.”

The Orioles made Holliday the first-overall pick in the 2022 draft, he played at four levels of the farm system last year, and he reached the majors four months past his 20th birthday. The fast track had a lane reserved for him.

The crash happened in slow motion. He was hitless in his first 13 at-bats, striking out nine times, and didn’t get another hit until this week’s trip to Anaheim.

“It’s nothing that Jackson did,” Elias said. “We were the ones that have been moving him along this quickly and it was a little hiccup, and I think it’s probably the first one that he’s ever had and he’s ultimately going to be better off for it. But this is something that we did, and I think once it became clear to me that he would benefit better from going back to Triple-A, resetting his head first and foremost but also making some adjustments at the plate, wanted to do it as quickly as possible.”

“We felt like it was important for him to just go play,” said manager Brandon Hyde. “It’s not easy here and what he’s done up until this point in his short, short career, the start of his career, has been unbelievable. It’s just not easy here, and we want to kind of take some weight off his shoulders a little bit and just go play and keep doing what he’s been doing. As you’ve seen from the couple times we’ve sent some guys down since I’ve been here, some prospects down, they really benefitted from it, just the experience up here, understanding the speed of the game, how tough it is, the adjustments that need to be made, and that’s the same thing in Jackson’s case. But Jackson will be up here soon. He’s got a really, really long career ahead of him, a great career ahead of him. He’s a really, really talented kid. But we want to just go and let him play and enjoy it again.”

A long conversation with Holliday unfolded earlier today at the ballpark, and Elias said he took the news “really, really well.”

“He’s got a growth mindset,” Elias said, “meaning that he’s going to kind of focus on what he wants to do differently and what he wants to do to be better, and I doubt he’s looking in the rear-view mirror too much. He’s going to respond excellently and I hope he’s back up here really soon.”

Elias didn’t want to share specifics of the marching orders that the hitting department gave Holliday. The group stays connected to the Triple-A staff and there’s constant communication between them.

“This game up here, people attack your weaknesses until you stop showing them to be weaknesses,” Elias said. “And he kind of knows what that attack looks like right now, and hopefully we’ll be able to concentrate his work on some of those areas.”

The strikeout ratio was a raised flag, along with the number of hitless at-bats. Elias again cited Holliday’s youth and inexperience.

“What stands out to me is he’s in the major leagues in this day and age, at age 20, while every other baseball player on earth in his peer group is, as far as I can tell, in High-A or lower, probably, unless I’m missing somebody,” Elias said. “Again, I don’t want to stress any deficiencies that he may or may not have shown while he was here, because it’s just unbelievable that he put himself in this position. I was the one that was faced with the decision on how and where to put him and this is how it played out. I’m concentrating on that aspect. We’re the ones who tell them where to go play, and he’s played exceptionally well and made a tremendous effort everywhere, and even while he was experiencing major league pitching for the first time.

“He played good defense at second base, which is a brand new thing for him, too. This kid’s doing everything we asked of him. This is me without a crystal ball trying to make the right decision for a precocious talent. There’s not a lot of playbook for how to handle somebody who was moving along as quickly and as well as he was, and for better or worse, this is kind of how it landed, and I’ve just tried to do the right thing in real time and we think that he’ll benefit from Triple-A right now.”

Elias was candid about the difficulties in knowing when a young player is ready to handle the daily grind in the majors, and he shouldered the blame for how it worked out with Holliday.

“None of this is ideal,” Elias said. “I want to stress that I’m ultimately responsible for how these things go, but once the evaluation was made by my staff and me that it would be better if he was back in Triple-A kind of resetting and making some small adjustments, hopefully, we didn’t see any benefit in waiting any longer, other than doing it for the sake of it. That didn’t seem like a good reason to me, and so we want him to go play at the level that would be most beneficial for his development right now, and that’s Triple-A.”

The absence of a crystal ball or other device to peer into the future also makes it harder for the Orioles to ascertain whether optioning Holliday was a necessary step in his development. It just seemed like the right move.

“I don’t really know,” Elias said. “Ideally, they come up and they stay, but this happens more often than not, actually, and really, really good players, Hall of Fame-caliber players in the last 25 years, have had the same thing happen, and it’s kind of par for the course and it’s a little more surprising nowadays when it doesn’t happen. It’s definitely not easy on anyone involved, but we really need to keep our perspective here, and this is just a very temporary bump in the road is my estimation.

“We moved him very fast in the minors but that’s because he was doing so well. We were trying to get him to a spot where he was challenged, and then he gets all the way to Triple-A, comes into spring training, looks pretty good there. It was hard for me to know exactly where he was, based on the evidence that I was working with. Again, ultimately, do I like the way that this has gone in April, totally? No, and I feel responsible for that. But it’s possible, just like it was for Grayson (Rodriguez) or Colton Cowser or any of these guys, that this was sort of a necessary development episode to be exposed to this before you’re fully ready for it. And now the work that you put in, you kind of know exactly what you need to do when you get back up there, and that’s valuable.

“It comes at a cost to get that negative feedback, but it’s valuable, and I guarantee you Jackson’s going to channel that well.”

The organization’s opinion of Holliday hasn’t soured. Expectations aren’t lowered. The Orioles retain full confidence that he’ll become the player they envisioned on draft night.

“A hundred percent, and perhaps more so with just the way he handled himself through this,” Elias said. “I couldn’t be more excited about him as an Oriole, and then also as a talent that anybody who’s a fan of this sport is going to be able to watch. He’s got an extremely bright future. We just need to polish up some things, and for a 20-year-old.”

The length of the reset is unknown. An injury could change it, but this is about Holliday first.

“With the importance of him and his future, we’re going to try to prioritize his own development in the short term,” Elias said. “But this is a major league team that’s trying to win every game, and if something, God forbid, happens to somebody and we need Jackson and he’s our best option, that will be on the table. That’s happened in the past, too, and that’s the mode that we’re in right now. As long as he’s down there - and it may not be very long, we don’t know - but as long as he’s down there, we’re going to have a plan for him. He’s going to be putting work in. But he’ll also be ready for whenever his name is called.”

Teammates expressed confidence today that Holliday won’t stay down for long, that he’ll fix the glitches and remain strong mentally.

“He’s got a good head on his shoulders and obviously a good upbringing and his dad (Matt) being in the business for however many years he was,” said Gunnar Henderson. “He has a really good idea of it and I know it’s only going to be a matter of time. Just get the bat going again and I’m sure he’ll be back up here real quick.”

“I would expect him to handle it really well,” said Jordan Westburg. “I’ve said this a lot about him: I think he’s one of the more mature people I’ve met. Not just young people. He just has a really good grip on life, what he believes in and what he wants to be. So it wouldn’t surprise me if this is just a short stint to get some confidence back, get some ABs and come back up here and really help this club.”

With Holliday leaving the active roster, more at-bats should become available to Ramón Urías and Jorge Mateo. Urías is starting at third base tonight, where he won a Gold Glove in 2022.

“We’ve got a lot of good right-handed players on this team who are struggling to get in the lineup on a regular basis, too, and we want to see those guys play,” Elias said.

The Orioles selected the contract of Ryan McKenna, a move obviously tied to Austin Hays being on the injured list. He’s also a right-handed-hitting outfielder who can run and defend. It’s a part-time role, as usual.

Prospects like Connor Norby and Coby Mayo must wait their turns in Triple-A.

“We looked at our options and, for this upcoming stretch of play, thought that it would be good to have the defensive profile, the speed, that Ryan brings on the bench, and an extra right-handed player, too.” Elias said.

“Connor’s doing really well. It feels like he’s been in Triple-A longer than he has. He’s moved really quickly, too. He was drafted in 2021 and has not played a full season in Triple-A yet. He’s also somebody that is working on his defense, whether that’s at second base, and he’s also working in the corner outfield. His time is coming, we’re talking about him. He’s a topic of conversation, which is always a good sign. But right now, at least in the short term, this is where we’re going with.

“Coby is doing really well. Very proud of him and where he’s at. We’re having to do a bit of thought about where to concentrate his defensive efforts because his defensive home, especially for a big-bodied guy like he is, is naturally behind his bat. We’ve got some options there and it’s something that we talk about and kind of examine in the context of our team on an ongoing basis. But when you’re in Triple-A performing well, you’re close, you’re in the conversation. But I will stress as we just experienced here how significant this jump from Triple-A to the majors is and you can’t just look at somebody’s Triple-A stats and imagine those stats in the majors and that’s how it’s going to go.

“We have our methods for trying to predict when we think these guys are ready to be productive up here. As I’ve just demonstrated, those methods aren’t foolproof, but it’s the best that we have.”

This also goes back again to the difference between rebuilding and reloading for another run at a division title.

“We’re trying to win every game that we possibly can,” Elias said. “In terms of putting out our best options on a nightly basis, he’s got competition because this is a good team.”

* John Means is starting Sunday for Triple-A Norfolk, which keeps Andrew Suárez in turn for the Orioles in the final game of the Athletics series. Means is down to his last rehab appearance before the club must figure out what to do with its staff.

“A decision on having too much pitching? Yeah, I’ll take that,” Elias said.

“We’re planning for it. We’ve got a trajectory of what things will look like when these guys get back, but the reality is, other players are apt to get hurt and so we’ll just kind of deal with it on a day-to-day basis. No decisions have been made about roles or things like that on the pitching staff, but obviously we’re having planning discussions around different scenarios. We’re excited to get John back, and hopefully Kyle Bradish and Cionel Pérez, all three of them will be welcomed with open arms, and we can figure out ways to have more good pitchers help out on this pitching staff. That’s for sure.”

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