When the Orioles last had the MLB draft’s first pick, they selected a player viewed as the top prospect available and one who became a guiding force in their rebuild in catcher Adley Rutschman.
In taking Oklahoma high school shortstop Jackson Holliday in that spot three years later Sunday night, Baltimore passed on this year’s perceived top player but got the one they see as that, with the organization believing it got a player who can be just as much of a difference-maker as Rutschman, regardless.
“It’s hard to explain what it means,” Holliday said. “It’s like a video game, honestly. Every video game you play, you’re the first pick, so that’s kind of what it felt like. Something that I’ll never forget, and it’s a true honor.
“I want to honor the Orioles for selecting me and I’m going to work as hard as I can to make it to the major leagues and have a great career for them and for their fans.”
Holliday, the son of seven-time All-Star Matt Holliday, was considered one of the draft’s top prospects, ranked second by MLB Pipeline and third by Baseball America. But in drafting him, the Orioles passed on Georgia high school outfielder Druw Jones, who both publications had as the class’s best player. Jones went second overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Holliday didn’t learn he would be No. 1 pick until the public did, with his father receiving a call from agent Scott Boras and keeping the news secret over the next minute. He credited his dad, who he shadowed in major league clubhouses growing up, for developing his mindset.
They’ve competed in mini golf in recent weeks to help keep Holliday’s mind off the draft, as well as following his younger brother, Ethan, along his summer baseball circuit.
“As a kid, he never made it noticeable of how good or how bad his game was, and that’s something that I’ve taken from him is how well he handled failure,” Holliday said. “That’s something that I want to be really, really good at, and that’s what you need to be good at when you’re getting into this lifestyle.”
Holliday becomes the first high school position player chosen with Baltimore’s first pick since Manny Machado in 2010. A left-handed hitter, he showed improved strength and speed in his senior season at Stillwater High School. Traceable to his father’s influence, Holliday has a tremendous approach at the plate and strong instincts as he set a national record for hits in a season, with hopes that he inherited power from his dad, as well.
In his 40-game senior season, Holliday, 18, hit .685 with a .749 on-base percentage and 1.392 slugging percentage thanks to 52 extra-base hits, including 17 home runs, and added 30 steals. Orioles executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said Holliday emerged as a possible candidate for the No. 1 pick relatively late. The club did not have him in consideration for the selection during staff meetings in the winter, but his improvements from then have the organization seeing him as a potential fixture.
“The upside for him is enormous,” Elias said. “It’s a potential star playing shortstop, batting in the middle of the order, doing so for a very long time. In some regard, I don’t know that the ceiling gets much higher than somebody with that profile.”
Elias said Holliday’s breakout caused “a fire alarm in the scouting industry.” Area scouts Ken Guthrie and Jim Richardson followed along before Elias made the trip to Stillwater to see Holliday in three games and a workout, meeting with his family, multiple generations of which lives in the college town between Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Holliday was the Orioles’ choice in a class littered with sons of former major leaguers, with the children of Andruw Jones, Carl Crawford and Lou Collier also going in the first round. The Orioles selected Holliday from a group of five players that Elias, without directly naming them, confirmed included Jones, Florida high school outfielder Elijah Green (fifth overall to Washington) and Cal Poly shortstop Brooks Lee (eighth overall to Minnesota). Georgia high school second baseman Termarr Johnson, who Pittsburgh took fourth overall, was believed to be the fifth.
With such a large group in consideration, Elias acknowledged a week before the draft it was doubtful that all of the Orioles’ decision-makers would agree on one player. He said Sunday that Holliday received a “yes” vote from all involved, even if some preferred another player.
“I think ‘consensus’ is the right word for it,” Elias said. “It was not unanimous. It never is. … But this was a player that anyone involved deemed worthy of selecting.
“It was a very difficult decision in a good way. I would liken it to deciding what to order at a five-star restaurant.”
The first overall pick has a slot value of just above $8.84 million, and although Holliday’s signing bonus isn’t expected to reach that figure, his pick is not one that suggests the Orioles will deploy the underslot strategy they’ve used in their previous two drafts. Holliday is committed to Oklahoma State, where his uncle, Josh, leads the program, his father is an assistant, and his grandfather and great-uncle previously coached; he said his uncle was “very excited” after the pick, happier that his nephew was drafted than upset about losing a top recruit. Holliday is also a client of Boras, the sport’s best-known agent who represented both his father and uncle during their playing careers.
After taking college outfielders Heston Kjerstad second overall in 2020 and Colton Cowser fifth overall in 2021, the Orioles signed both to deals significantly beneath the slot values for their draft positions, enabling Baltimore to spread those savings to other prospects later in the draft. Even in receiving a then-record $8.1 million bonus, Rutschman signed under his slot value, with those savings largely devoted to second-round pick Gunnar Henderson, who has since become the Orioles’ No. 2 prospect and represented this front office’s highest-drafted high schooler before Holliday.
This year, the Orioles’ total bonus pool is nearly $17 million, trailing only the 2015 Houston Astros. Elias was Houston’s amateur scouting director then, and this marks only the third time among the nine top-five picks he’s been involved with that his team has selected a high school position player.
“I’m hopeful that Jackson’s got a good chance to move efficiently through the minors and join this group that we see,” Elias said. “I’ve seen high school picks that move just as fast, if not faster, than college players. It just depends. Everybody’s different. But this was the prospect that we wanted to add to our pipeline.”
Elias has had varying success with his previous three first-round picks in Baltimore. Rutschman became the top-ranked prospect in baseball, viewed as the face of the Orioles’ rebuild and a player capable of turning their tide. Baltimore has been a much more successful team since his late May promotion, completing the first half Sunday as a surprise playoff contender.
Kjerstad did not make his professional debut until two years after his selection after being diagnosed with the heart condition myocarditis following the draft and suffering a left hamstring strain this spring. He was promoted to High-A Aberdeen last week after dominating younger pitchers with Low-A Delmarva.
After selecting him, Elias said Cowser had the potential to be a fast riser, and he’s proven to be that despite some struggles along the way. Despite more swings and misses from his time at Sam Houston, Cowser has already reached Double-A, positioning him to join the Orioles at some point in 2023.
Holliday becomes the latest addition to a collection of middle infielders Elias has stockpiled since taking charge of the front office, joining Henderson, Jordan Westburg, Terrin Vavra, Connor Norby, César Prieto and more. To build the “elite talent pipeline” Elias promised when he was first introduced, the Orioles’ system must continually be restocked, and Holliday’s selection marks the first of this year’s additions.
Elias noted that in that 2015 draft, the Astros took LSU shortstop Alex Bregman second overall the same year Carlos Correa, a shortstop they drafted first overall in 2012, made his debut. They got both on the field without issue, culminating in a World Series title in 2017.
“When you’re a shortstop, it’s hard to find yourself blocked,” Elias said.
The Orioles had three more picks in Sunday’s opening night of the draft. At 33rd overall in the competitive balance round, they drafted Cal outfielder Dylan Beavers before selecting Clemson third baseman Max Wagner with the first pick of the second round, 42nd overall. Their final selection of the draft’s first day, No. 67, was acquired from the Miami Marlins as part of the return for relievers Cole Sulser and Tanner Scott.
Baltimore has the first pick in each subsequent round, with Rounds 3-10 on Monday before the draft closes with 10 rounds Tuesday. But it all started with Holliday.
“He’s got everything in front of him and a tremendous family and support system that will work in concert with our people to get the most out of Jackson and his career this next few years,” Elias said. “I think this is, obviously with the No. 1 overall pick, a very major addition to what is already the top farm system baseball and what is now a young, talented major league team.”