When Jackson Holliday began the season at Single-A Delmarva, it seemed realistic for the 19-year-old to finish the year at Double-A Bowie. After all, Gunnar Henderson began last season at Bowie, moved on to Triple-A Norfolk and finished the season with the Orioles.
Moving up three levels was quite an achievement for Henderson, and for Holliday to do the same would have been laudable.
Instead, Holliday bettered the 22-year-old Henderson by zooming through three levels and adding a fourth: Delmarva, High-A Aberdeen, Bowie, and beginning Tuesday night, Norfolk.
Henderson, who’s playing so well with the Orioles that it would be a surprise if he wasn’t voted the American League Rookie of the Year, had a .297 average and .946 OPS with the Baysox and the Tides last season before he was recalled on August 31st.
This season, as late as May 29th, Henderson was hitting below .200 and some fans were calling for him to return to Triple-A. Those fans didn’t realize that Henderson was playing well at both shortstop and third base and unlike overmatched big leaguers, was showing patience at the plate. With his .199 average, Henderson had a .331 on-base average.
Henderson celebrated his one-year anniversary in the major leagues last week, and watching his outstanding run, catch and throw double play on Friday night in Arizona, it’s amazing to think that he should get even better.
Holliday has also compiled a superb stat line at each stop in the Orioles’ system this year. He has a .333 average and .968 OPS.
Even with the IronBirds where Henderson, and two No. 1 picks, outfielder Colton Cowser and outfielder/first baseman Heston Kjerstad, had significant challenges, Holliday thrived, hitting .314 with a .940 OPS, and he flourished with Bowie, hitting .333 with a .928 OPS.
Holliday, who was still in high school 16 months ago, could have a harder time at Triple-A. Many of the players he’ll compete against have already played in the majors. That wasn’t the case in Double-A.
He didn’t look ovwhelmed when he spent several weeks with the Orioles during major league spring training, impressing manager Brandon Hyde.
“I wanted him as long as possible.” Hyde told reporters in Anaheim, California before Monday night’s Angels-Orioles game. “The experience he was going to get was invaluable [and] he didn’t look out of place, and the game wasn’t too fast for him.”
By promoting Holliday for the final three weeks of Norfolk’s season, he’ll get to not only play at a higher level, but he’ll get to play a longer season. The Double-A season ends on September 17th, and Norfolk’s regular season is a week longer.
The Tides have already qualified for the International League playoffs because they won the first half of the season, and Holliday gets to play in his first professional postseason.
Over the past 17 months, the Orioles have debuted some of their best prospects — Henderson, catcher Adley Rutschman, pitchers Kyle Bradish, DL Hall and Grayson Rodriguez, infielders Joey Ortiz and Jordan Westburg, and outfielders Cowser and Kyle Stowers.
While Cowser, Ortiz and Stowers are back with Norfolk, and Stowers is currently on the injured list after he suffered a broken nose when he was hit by a pitch last week, the top prospects have played extremely well.
Now, Holliday gets to join a Triple-A team that’s so good that Kjerstad, Ortiz and relievers Bryan Baker, Mike Baumann and Nick Vespi would probably have important roles on most major league teams.
While the Orioles still have a challenge with the Tampa Bay Rays for the American League East title and a postseason to look forward to, Holliday’s September at Norfolk will be closely examined.
Many will want the Orioles to ensure that Holliday breaks camp with the team next year, but a scout from another organization who has watched Holliday and Henderson play this season, would start Holliday, who’ll be 20 in December, at Norfolk next season before promoting him relatively early in the year as they did with Rutschman.
The big question when Holliday arrives is: Who plays shortstop—Henderson or Holliday?
The scout believes Holliday is the better shortstop and Henderson’s best position is third base.
Henderson is a lifelong shortstop, and after his outstanding play in Arizona, made it clear he’d like to remain there.
“I feel like Cal [Ripken Jr.] was a tall shortstop, and [Corey Seager] is a tall shortstop as well,” he said. “Felt like they kind of paved the way for that, and just feel like I’m trying to prove that and show that I can play shortstop.”
Perhaps Henderson’s play the rest of the season will prove that he should be the Orioles’ shortstop. At 6-foot-3, he’s an inch shorter than Ripken and Seager and the same height as Alex Rodriguez, another pioneering shortstop.
Choosing Henderson or Holliday as their shortstop next season is an enticing problem for the Orioles to face, but that chatter will have to wait. There’s a pennant race going on here.
Note: Right-handed reliever Logan Gillaspie was claimed off waivers by the Boston Red Sox. Boston optioned him to Triple-A Worcester.