'One down, four to go': After Holliday, O's next prospects on standby

April 11th, 2024

BOSTON -- The top five players in Triple-A Norfolk’s lineup to begin the season were some of the most highly regarded young hitters in not only the Orioles’ organization, but in all of baseball.

In nine of the Tides’ first 10 games, they topped their batting order like this:

  1. Jackson Holliday, MLB Pipeline’s No. 1 overall prospect
  2. Connor Norby, the O’s No. 6 prospect
  3. Heston Kjerstad, the O’s No. 4 prospect and No. 30 overall
  4. Coby Mayo, the O’s No. 3 prospect and No. 28 overall
  5. Kyle Stowers, a former top prospect for Baltimore

That decorated bunch started a group text as they mashed pitching across the International League early this year. Norfolk scored nine or more runs in seven of its first eight games, highlighted by a 26-run outburst at Charlotte on April 3.

Now, the Tides’ top five is a man down -- likely permanently. On Wednesday, Holliday was called up to the big leagues for the first time, making his MLB debut in the Orioles’ 7-5 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

After Holliday learned the news of his callup Tuesday night, the 20-year-old infielder sent a text to his now-former teammates.

“One down, four to go.”

“It was awesome to be able to go there with those guys and have such an unbelievable Triple-A team and guys that I enjoy being around and enjoy playing with,” Holliday said shortly before his first big league game. “We’re all rooting for each other, and I can’t wait for them to all be in this clubhouse at some point.”

It’s likely only a matter of time. Baltimore’s farm system is churning out young talent at an unprecedented pace, reaping the rewards of wise picks made in the MLB Draft by O’s general manager Mike Elias with his front office and strong player development staff.

The Orioles’ roster now features three former No. 1 overall prospects in catcher Adley Rutschman and infielders Gunnar Henderson and Holliday. Outfielder Colton Cowser, right-hander Grayson Rodriguez and infielder Jordan Westburg are also former Top 100 prospects.

There’s an incredible pipeline of talented players, who are also creating a fun, friendly culture that comes with them as they ascend the ranks.

“It’s special when you get these types of players that play the way they do,” Norfolk manager Buck Britton said. “You talk about Adley, you talk about Gunnar, you throw Jackson in the mix, and you throw these other guys in the mix.

“They care about each other, they care about each other’s success and they feel obligated to make sure that they are at the top of their game, so that they raise their teammates’ level of play as well.”

Kjerstad and Stowers have already gotten tastes of the big leagues, albeit in small samples. They’re both putting themselves back on the big league radar.

After a brief 13-game debut stint in the Majors last September/October, Kjerstad has been tearing up upon his return to Triple-A, batting .388 (19-for-49) with four doubles, six homers, 25 RBIs and a 1.320 OPS over 12 contests. The 25-year-old outfielder could be the next to join Holliday in Baltimore, especially if the team seeks a left-handed power bat.

Stowers also has four doubles and six homers for Norfolk while batting .286 (14-for-49) and collecting 18 RBIs through 11 games. The 26-year-old outfielder could get another opportunity in the big leagues in the near future after playing 34 games for the O’s in ‘22 and 14 in ‘23.

When Mayo eventually gets called up by the Orioles, it should be for good. The 22-year-old third baseman/first baseman is now the highest-ranked prospect on Norfolk’s roster. It’s mostly because of his bat -- he’s hitting .377 (20-for-53) with four doubles, one triple, three homers, eight RBIs and a 1.101 OPS in 12 games -- but he’s improved defensively in the past year.

Don’t overlook Norby, either. The 23-year-old second baseman/outfielder is hitting .327 (18-for-55) with four doubles, four homers, 15 RBIs and a 1.015 OPS

Keeping up with all of Norfolk’s offensive stats can be tough work due to the sheer volume. As Holliday noted, he “got a lot of at-bats” -- 42 in 10 games, to be exact -- “because we scored a lot of runs.”

But Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde keeps tabs from afar, routinely checking box scores, watching video and monitoring the players who should eventually be at his disposal in the big leagues -- and possibly soon.

“They’re all off to pretty good starts,” Hyde said. “To see that many guys get hot that early, especially with those kinds of numbers, I’ve never seen it like that.”