One year ago, Jackson Holliday showed up at the Baltimore Orioles spring training camp, full of talent and hope and expectations.

The No. 1 pick in the 2022 MLB Draft was still only 19 years old, a boy among men in the major league clubhouse, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before he was sent to the minor-league camp. Holliday was only there for a taste of what was to come, same as so many of the Baby Birds who were with him in camp to start the spring. 

Not long after he arrived, his dad – seven-time All-Star Matt Holliday – sent him a text. “How many of those guys are going to be in the big leagues?” 

Telling the story a few hours before the Futures Game in Seattle last summer, mere minutes after his dad introduced him to Ken Griffey Jr. – “That was pretty cool,” he admitted – the younger Holliday smiled as he thought about the exchange. 

“I was like, ‘All of them. They’re all going to play in the big leagues,’ ” Jackson Holliday said. “It’s a super-talented group, and they’re all awesome guys, which makes it even better to be part of. It’s a neat dynamic.”

He wasn’t wrong. The 2023 Orioles surprised just about everybody outside their own clubhouse, rolling to an AL-best 101 wins – 18 more than the club produced the previous season and an almost incomprehensible 49 more than Baltimore had in 2022, the year Holliday was drafted.

Youngsters-turned-leaders Gunnar Henderson and Adley Rutschman were key, and top prospects Grayson Rodriguez, Jordan Westburg, Heston Kjerstad, Colton Cowser and Kyle Stowers made their MLB debuts. 

Yep, in Baltimore, they’re just getting started. We’ll come back to Holliday, but right now let’s look at one of the other biggest reasons to think the Orioles are a very real threat to win the 2024 World Series. 

Corbin Burnes

Random fun fact: When Burnes made his debut with two perfect innings of relief on July 10, 2018, he became the first player in MLB history with the first name of Corbin. When he makes his Orioles debut the season, he’ll be the first Baltimore player with that first name. Archie Corbin did play for the O’s in 1996, posting a 2.30 ERA in 18 relief appearances. 

Relevant fun fact: Measuring his signature cut fastball by raw value-, Burnes had the most valuable cutter in all of baseball in 2021 (minus-18.1), and again in 2022 (minus-18.2) and again in 2023 (minus-19.9). 

Most valuable pitches

Very few deals have made Orioles fans more excited than the one GM Mike Elias pulled off on Feb. 1, when he made a trade with the Brewers to acquire this former Cy Young winner (and All-Star each of the past three seasons). It’s already on the short list, though the 1965 deal that landed once-and-future MVP Frank Robinson likely will never be topped – the future Hall of Famer won the AL Triple Crown (and MVP) in his first season with the Orioles. 

What does Year 1 have in store for Burnes? Another question: Will this be his only year with Baltimore? He is, of course, a free agent after the season. It’s easy to imagine the Orioles doing whatever it takes to keep him in the fold long-term, and it’s easy to imagine Burnes looking at how well the franchise is set up for a long winning stretch and deciding this is where he wants to stay, as long as the new ownership offers a market-value contract. 

For 2024, Burnes slots in atop a largely overlooked rotation. 

Last year’s ace, Kyle Bradish, is on the shelf to start the season with an UCL issue but he’s expected back at some point during the year, looking to build on the 2.83 ERA he posted in 30 starts last season. Dean Kremer has a 3.74 ERA/4.21 FIP over the past two seasons. Tyler Wells had a 3.98 ERA in his 20 starts last season. And then there’s sophomore Grayson Rodriguez, the ultra-talented starter who struggled early in his debut season but had a 2.18 ERA in his final 11 starts. He could be Baltimore’s best starter in 2024 and beyond.

Cole Irvin, who had a 4.11 ERA in 62 starts for the A’s in 2021-22 and split between starts and relief outings last year for the O’s, is in the mix for starts. Former club ace John Means will start on the IL and is said to be behind on his throwing program.  

Burnes provides certainty. Experience. Leadership. He’s thrown 19 playoff innings, with a 2.84 ERA. That cutter is a strikeout pitch for Burnes, no doubt. In his Cy Young season of 2021, 116 of his 234 strikeouts ended with a cutter. In 2022, it was 114 of 243 strikeouts. Last year, 90 of 200.

But it’s not just his strikeout pitch. It’s his catch-up pitch, too. 

Here’s the breakdown of his overall pitch usage in 2023 (including his one playoff start).

  • Cutter: 55.2%
  • Curveball: 17.2%
  • Changeup: 11.1%
  • 2-seamer: 7.9%
  • Slider: 4.3%
  • Sweeper: 4.3%

Now, here are the percent totals for when he’s behind in the count. 

  • Cutter: 71.2%
  • Curveball: 9.0%
  • Changeup: 11.4%
  • 2-seamer: 5.2%
  • Slider: 1.9%
  • Sweeper: 1.3%

Want to know the pitch that pitchers trust the most? That’s the stat. It’s not just that Burnes knows he can throw the cutter for a strike, but he knows that even when hitters know he has to come in the zone, he’s confident they still aren’t likely to make hard-hit contact. 

In fact, opposing batters had just a 60 BIP+ (40% below the MLB average) when facing Burnes’ cutter in 2023.

Jackson Holliday

Of course we’re coming back to Holliday. 

The consensus top prospect in all of baseball is a lock to join the group of youngsters in the bigs this season, maybe by Opening Day. The Orioles are giving him the opportunity this spring to earn his debut roster spot, and with good reason. Yeah, he’s only 20 but his 2023 campaign was pretty incredible. 

Holliday started the year with Single-A Delmarva and check out the progression:

  • Single-A: 14 G, .396/.522/.660, 1.183 OPS
  • High-A: 57 G, .314/.452/.488, .940 OPS
  • Double-A: 36 G, .338/.421/.507, .928 OPS
  • Triple-A: 18 G, .267/.396/.400, .796 OPS 

Think about that. As a 19-year-old infielder playing against guys an average of seven years his senior, he still managed to post a .396 on-base percentage. Oh, and he had almost as many walks (16) as he had strikeouts (17). 

“He’s so advanced and I have never talked to an evaluator who doesn’t rave about how advanced he is,” said MLB Pipeline senior writer Jim Callis, who has covered minor-league prospects for decades. “He controls the strike zone remarkably well for someone who just turned 20 in December.”

Jackson Holliday stats

The most logical question – after “when will he make his debut?” – is “where will he play?” He’s been a shortstop his whole life, but most elite athletes are shortstops at some point. The O’s have a pretty good shortstop already in Gunnar Henderson. And Henderson’s arm is stronger, so second base is the most likely landing spot for Holliday in the bigs. Holliday doesn’t have what would be considered an average third-base arm. 

When he gets the call, he won’t be brought up as a utility player. He’ll be a starter. Adam Frazier was the primary second baseman last year, but he’s gone. Westburg played 50 games at the position as a rookie last year, but he’s the most likely option at third base. Veteran Ramon Urias has more value as a utility guy. If Holliday is deemed ready, the position is his, despite the fact that he’s only played 25 games there as a professional the past two seasons. 

The only possible critique about his first full season was that he “only” hit 12 home runs. Don’t worry, Callis said, the power is there. 

“His hitting ability and plate discipline should translate into plus or better power as he gets stronger and learns to lift and pull pitches more consistently,” Callis said. “I think he’s on the same path Mike Trout was, where he comes in and wows everyone with his hitting ability and the power comes pretty fast soon thereafter.”

Trout hit 11 homers in 91 Double-A games in 2011, his age-19 season. In his rookie year for the Angels, 2012, he popped 30 homers. Look at Gunnar Henderson, too. He hit 17 homers in 105 minor-league games in his age-20 season of 2021, then 19 in 112 minor-league games in 2022.

And, yeah, his first year in the bigs he popped 28. 

The future is bright in Baltimore, folks.

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