The Orioles shook up what was expected from the 2020 MLB draft almost immediately. Going against just about every pre-draft prognostication that thought they would take Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, the Orioles instead went for University of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad.
Kjerstad is not a complete nobody of a prospect. He ranks as high as the #7 prospect in the draft on the Fangraphs prospect ranking and is a top 10 prospect on most of the prospect rankings. That’s a guy who still would have been exciting player for fans of a team picking in the top ten to draft this year. It just feels less exciting, probably, for anyone who got their hopes up for the O’s to pick Martin.
The pick of Kjerstad most likely means that the Orioles are going to be hunting for high-upside high schoolers with an overslot bonus at #30 and possibly at #39 too. The slot value of the #2 pick is $7,789,900, and it’s a near-certainty that a guy who wasn’t going to be picked for several picks, if he didn’t agree on a number with the Orioles ahead of time, won’t command all of that slot money. The O’s might get a million dollars or more to use later.
Is that a good thing? Well, that probably depends on whether Kjerstad lives up to what the Orioles hope he can be, and whether any of the hypothetical overslot players later on live up to what the Orioles hope they can be. If they are going to regret not picking Martin, they will end up regretting it a lot of times a year, because he ended up being drafted by fellow AL East team Toronto at #5 overall.
The 21-year-old Kjerstad is a lefty batter, righty thrower listed at 6’3” and 215 lbs. He’s a corner outfielder, and that’s probably his future home. Again, if you got excited about the up-the-middle versatility of Martin, it could be a bummer.
So, what’s so great about Heston? If you can overlook mentions of his swing being a bit odd, there are good things to be seen in his scouting report from Fangraphs:
He’s kept his big, 6-foot-3 frame lean and speedy during that time, relevant for the corner-only prospect because Kjerstad puts a lot of balls in play down both baselines and runs well enough to turn them all into extra bases. He can drop the bat head and lift balls at his knees, and also get on top of pitches at the top of the zone. It’s plus bat control on a somewhat odd-looking swing. If there are concerns about Kjerstad’s cut, I’m not hearing them, they’re drowned out by how well he’s performed.
And also from MLB Pipeline:
Kjerstad’s strength and bat speed give him well above-average raw power to all fields. He has a complicated swing that features a big hand circle in his load, so he has to be precise with his timing to make it work — but he has done so in college and was the top performer in the U.S. collegiate team’s lineup last summer. He’s an aggressive hitter who always will accumulate strikeouts as a tradeoff for his pop.
I’m going to have to get over them not picking Martin pretty fast because otherwise it’s going to drive me crazy. He sounded so exciting, and now the Orioles have got “an aggressive hitter who will always accumulate strikeouts” - well, hopefully he’ll get the pop that they think he’ll get and it will be a fun time in Baltimore.
I don’t think anything illustrates the surprise of this pick better than the fact that the MLB Network broadcast had Vanderbilt’s head coach on video ready to react to it. It wasn’t a complete and total surprise; the possibility of an underslot deal had been mentioned as something of a longshot in mock drafts pretty continually through the process. Kjerstad’s name specifically had come up a couple of weeks ago.
It was still a pretty big surprise. Just not so surprising that Kjerstad didn’t have an Orioles hat ready to put on when he got drafted.