Top of the Order: It’s Holliday Season in Baltimore

Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to Top of the Order, where every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll be starting your baseball day with some news, notes, and thoughts about the game we love.

Finally, after what felt like the longest less than two weeks of our lives, the moment has arrived: The Baltimore Orioles are calling up shortstop Jackson Holliday, the top prospect in baseball. He will make his MLB debut with the Orioles as soon as Wednesday, sliding in at second base because Baltimore already has Gunnar Henderson, another former no. 1 overall prospect, at shortstop.

The 20-year-old Holliday exceeded even the rosiest of expectations in spring training, hitting .311/.354/.600 with two home runs in 48 plate appearances. But he didn’t make the Opening Day roster despite all that, with general manager Mike Elias citing Holliday’s performance against lefties in the minors and his need to further acclimate to the keystone as reasons to delay his big league career. But, with Holliday off to a bonkers start at Triple-A (.333/.482/.605 with a 189 wRC+) and the Orioles, at 6-4, in need of a jolt, now was the right time to bring him up.

Like both Adley Rutschman and Henderson before him, Holliday is great at everything but perhaps not truly elite at anything. No, he doesn’t have the raw power or speed of Wyatt Langford, the American League’s other tantalizing rookie, but Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin grade Holliday as a future five-tool star with plenty of development still ahead of him.

Ben Clemens wrote that it would be the wrong decision for Baltimore to keep Holliday down past the Super Two deadline (typically 30 or so days into the season), not only because it would be a bad-faith gesture to Holliday, but also because it would be a terrible baseball move. With the Orioles’ offense looking more good than great in the early going, they’re making the right choice to call him up now: Holliday is simply better than the players he’s replacing; Jorge Mateo is best used as a super-utility man and Ramón Urías has struggled to start the season. Moreover, the O’s had little service-time incentive to keep him stashed in the minors; if he wins the AL Rookie of the Year award, they will be rewarded with an additional draft pick and Holliday will receive a full year of service, no matter how long he’s on the big league roster. Assuming he’s ready for the majors, the Orioles stand to benefit more from having him on the roster for as long as possible.

So now, and apologies for what you’re about to read… What a bright time, it’s the right time to call up Holliday.

Blake Snell Will Be Fine

From a results standpoint, Blake Snell’s Giants debut was not a good one. Facing the Nationals at home on Monday, he allowed three runs on three hits and two walks while striking out five, and it took him 72 pitches to get through three innings. But with his late signing, lack of a true spring training, and relatively quick ramp-up, San Francisco should consider the start a muted success. Sure, the Giants lost 8-1, but Snell got through the outing without injury — something that is hardly a guarantee for any pitcher, especially so far this season — and he should be built up for about 90 or so pitches his next time around. Overall, that’s encouraging.

Besides, it wasn’t all bad when you take a look under the hood. Snell’s stuff didn’t look too far off from the arsenal that won him his second Cy Young award last year. As you’d expect, his average velocity for all four of his pitches was down, but none alarmingly so: His fastball dipped just 0.1 mph, while his slider had the biggest velocity drop, at 1.1 mph. As a result, his spin rates also decreased, but again, this shouldn’t be concerning.

Additionally, Snell got 11 misses on 25 swings (44%), and 33% of his pitches resulted in either a called strike or a whiff; both rates were higher than his marks from last year. The quality of contact against him was anemic as well, with the seven balls in play averaging an exit velocity of just 80 mph. This is who Snell is: an elite contact suppressor and whiff-inducer who will more often than not run into high pitch counts because he avoids the middle of the plate.

As recently as a month ago, I was lamenting the state of the Giants rotation, but things are looking up now. Snell joins Logan Webb to give them a formidable frontline duo, one that is as strong as any other in baseball. Meanwhile, their decision to convert offseason acquisition Jordan Hicks into a starter has gone better than anyone could’ve expected, and they also have top prospect Kyle Harrison. And let’s not forget that San Francisco’s staff has more reinforcements on the way. Alex Cobb was initially on track to return from offseason hip surgery ahead of schedule, perhaps as soon as sometime this month, before he suffered a mild flexor strain; the setback will keep him out until early May. Lefty Robbie Ray, the 2021 AL Cy Young winner, could make at least a handful of late-season starts once he’s back from Tommy John surgery; and Tristan Beck and Sean Hjelle could be factors as well.

To be clear, this team still has flaws — its offense has been one of the worst in the National League and its relievers collectively were below replacement level entering Tuesday — but Snell and the starting staff will be just fine.

The Free-Swinging Giancarlo Stanton

I’m confident in saying Snell is the same player he was at last season’s peak, but I have no idea how to evaluate Giancarlo Stanton, the most enigmatic player in baseball. He is still hitting the crap out of the ball despite overhauling his conditioning in the offseason and coming to camp noticeably slimmer, and his surface-level numbers so far are good: .250/.268/.550 with three home runs and a 134 wRC+.

But as the OBP foreshadows, Stanton’s plate discipline has eroded, and I’m just not sure he can make this work. He’s chasing 45.7% of the pitches he sees outside the zone, which is the worst rate of his career by 15 points. His contact rate is also down, and his overall swing percentage is above 50% for the first time in his career. Stanton has always been streaky, but usually his plate discipline is indicative of where his results will be.

The concern here is that this solid start is nothing more than luck, that Stanton is flailing but essentially running into a few homers with guesswork. If that’s the case, it might be wise for pitchers to stop throwing him anything near the zone to see if he’ll keep chasing. In the meantime, it’s too soon to know what to make of Stanton.

The 40-Year-Old Legend

I really thought it might be curtains on Jesse Chavez’s career when he got rocked in his first spring training outing, and I really, really thought it was when the White Sox released him last month. After all, if he couldn’t crack the bullpen that sure looked like it was going to be the worst in baseball, whose would he join?

Well, of course, I discounted both the Braves connection and his apparent comfort pitching in Atlanta. Soon after being released, Chavez signed a minor league deal, and later had his contract selected to give him a spot on the Opening Day roster. And as he’s done whenever he’s worn an Atlanta uniform, he’s piling up outs.

The 40-year-old has allowed just one run in 6.1 innings across three appearances, helping to save the rest of the bullpen in each outing. Indeed, he’s still kicking in what’s set to be his last season, all while pitching with guile and a funky arm action (and wearing sunglasses no matter the lighting or time of day). Each outing brings him closer to retirement, but I’m convinced Chavez’s vibes will live forever.

Well, That Didn’t Last Long

Some quick finality on the Julio Teheran signing, which I wrote about on Friday: He was DFA’d after just one start, in which his former Braves squad trounced him for four runs on just eight outs, with six hits and a couple of walks to boot.

We’ve since learned that his $2.5 million contract is not, in fact, for the full $2.5 million, but that it’s rather a split contract that pays him at that rate in the majors but only $150,000 in the minors. Still, the MLB split makes it implausible that anyone claims him, and it also makes it a near-guarantee that he accepts an outright assignment to Triple-A, since he’d be forfeiting his right to earn that hefty rate if he’s needed back in the bigs again.

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1 month ago

The Teheran situation is a bit interesting from an economic standpoint. Yes, would another team pay Teheran more than $2.5 million? Probably not. But as long as the Mets can use this little trick without repercussion, won’t they continue to bounce him up and down simply as needed when they need a fresh arm that can do a spot start? How much of that $2.5 million can he possibly hope to collect?

Then there is the mental and pride side of things. Teheran has been successful enough in his career that I surely hope that the difference of a million dollars or so will not have a huge effect on his life. It seems if there were an opportunity to actually stay on a MLB roster, even at the minimum salary, that would be a better avenue to pursue.

Also, you could avoid being on the Mets.

Last edited 1 month ago by TKDC
1 month ago
Reply to  TKDC

It’s possible no one offered him a major league deal. He isn’t really better than AAA depth.

He’s the sort of guy that makes me want to make AAA basically a taxi squad for all MLB teams, such that if anyone needs him they can call him up. He can stay at the same AAA club and go to whichever MLB team wants him that week if any.

Anyone on the 40 man is tied to that team.

Last edited 1 month ago by Ivan_Grushenko
1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I’ve thought about this too. MLB would really benefit from a loan system.

1 month ago
Reply to  TKDC

I was trying to figure out if this is a really smart contract for the Mets or if it’s too clever for its own good. Why haven’t other teams tried this before? I think it’s probably because most teams have a Teheran-level guy hanging out in AAA. I’m not sure why Jose Butto and (eventually) Lucchesi can’t play this role.

Maybe they are so worried with the number of TJ surgeries getting announced that finding literally any pitcher who can pitch more than 3 innings at a time will be impossible in a month.

1 month ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Most teams can get by with their AAA (and AAAA) depth of young players who still have minor league options remaining such that they don’t need to go out their way to sign veterans on their last legs to perform a similar role.

1 month ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I feel like this is more of what happened. That the Mets didn’t have someone worth bringing up to fill in a few starts and they didn’t want to risk development of a pitcher who could have filled that role from AAA. They have some AAA level prospects, but calling them up to get shelled over a few starts isn’t going to help anyone on a team that’s not truly competing this year.

This is more about the Mets’ lack of options at this point in a season than them pulling anything clever.

1 month ago
Reply to  TKDC

I guess we’ll find out soon but I wonder if the Orioles did the same thing with Tony Kemp. I thought from the start that it was possible they were going to do exactly what they did with Holliday—send him down for two weeks, call him up in time for PPI eligibility—but even if not they surely knew it was a matter of when, not if. So it was very strange they gave Kemp a major league deal for $1 million. He got 9 at bats! This split structure would make sense, and I similarly doubt anyone claims him.