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Orioles 2020 draft preview: Heston Kjerstad

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The possibility of the Orioles doing an underslot deal with the #2 pick is still in play. One more rumored name is Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad.

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NCAA BASEBALL: JUN 10 Div 1 Championship Super Regionals - Ole Miss at Arkansas
Heston Kjerstad in action during last year’s college baseball playoffs.
Photo by Andy Altenburger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The first round of the 2020 MLB draft is now only a day away. Since the Orioles had seven more wins than the Tigers last season, they’ll select #2 overall and will have their choice of any player who isn’t named Spencer Torkelson. The #1 pick going to Torkelson has been consistent across just about every mock draft and even the generally tight-lipped Mike Elias told O’s reporters yesterday there’s a “low” level of uncertainty about who the Tigers will take.

If the Orioles, like the Tigers, do what “everyone” expects when they make their own selection, their pick will be Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, who’s seen on most of the draft prospect rankings as being the next guy after Torkelson. The Athletic’s Keith Law even has Martin as the top prospect in the class.

Recent mock drafts, including one from Law and one from Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs, anticipate a Martin selection from the Orioles. However, both continue to bring up the possibility that the Orioles might go for an underslot pick at #2 that would enable them to get a better-rated talent with either or both of their next picks at #30 and #39.

One name mentioned by both Law and Longenhagen is University of Arkansas outfielder Keston Hjerstad. Here’s Longenhagen on what he’s heard to attach the O’s to Kjerstad:

Teams picking behind Baltimore still think this situation is fluid, that the Orioles have been shopping around (initially Nick Gonzales, who has realistic homes at four through six) looking to cut a deal as they try for an optimal quality/quantity combination for their class as a whole. Sources think the team has explored getting a deal done for between $4 million and $4.5 million, which is the slot amount between picks 11 and 14.

The slot value of the Orioles #2 pick is about $7.8 million. There’s quite a gap between that and $4.5 million. What the Orioles might be able to do with their later picks with an extra $3.3 million is something of a question, though there is the possibility that this year’s shorter draft, with smaller draft pools, will lead to a larger than usual number of “signability” high school players who are talented but who have teams pass on their price tag.

The Orioles, if they save so much money from the #2 pick, would be able to pick players like that. Whether this is a strategy that works depends on both the underslot player at #2 and the overslot player later on turning out to be as good as or better than hoped.

Although Kjerstad isn’t a near-unanimous top two prospect in the draft, he is still generally regarded as being in the top ten. He rates as the #7 player on the Fangraphs ranking, #9 from ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, and #10 on the MLB Pipeline ranking. That’s a real prospect, if perhaps not the highest-ceiling or even highest certainty draft pick the Orioles could make at this spot.

MLB Pipeline on Kjerstad:

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.

If you are the kind of Orioles fan who, like me, has been conditioned to expect a certain amount of failure from O’s player development from the Dan Duquette days and before, seeing the phrase “complicated swing” may not make you feel great about a possible draft pick.

Although Kjerstad is reasonably well regarded in this draft class, if he doesn’t work out, in hindsight it will be obvious: “Oh, right, his swing was weird.” If Elias and his staff get serious about thinking about Kjerstad, they will have to figure out whether this is a problem or not. It could just be that Kjerstad will be able to find pro success while looking a bit different from everyone else.

At Fangraphs, where Kjerstad is rated a bit higher than his peers, the same swing sounds like much less of a concern:

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.

The performance is indeed impressive. Across the whole of Kjerstad’s Arkansas career, he batted .343/.421/.590. That’s a quality batting line, especially considering he was robbed of most of his junior year, when he would have been expected to do the best yet. The SEC is the baseball conference with one of the best, if not the best, overall levels of talent. In limited action before COVID-19 shut everything down, Kjerstad was hitting .448/.513/.790 with a 16-game hitting streak in 2020.

As for the “somewhat odd-looking swing,” some video taken by Perfect Game Baseball at a college event in late February/early March, which was only three months ago even though it feels like it was three years ago:

It’s true that if Kjerstad had a scowl, a beard, a comical amount of eye black, and a huge wad of chewing tobacco, from which he spat grossly in slow motion, this would probably be the swing of an antagonist from a 1990s kid-oriented baseball movie, with the pre-swing bat movement coming across as intimidating in the film. He would hit a home run against the “hero” team at a low point in the movie.

The #7 prospect in the draft, or the #9 or #10 prospect, is not the #2 prospect. If the Orioles had been an unremarkable level of bad in the 2019 season, perhaps like the Rockies, who finished with a 71-91 record and will be picking at #9 in this draft, Kjerstad might be the player where I hope he slips down to the Orioles at that pick. He would be appealing there.

I’m not sure how realistic of a target Kjerstad would even be if the hypothetical scenario of the Orioles looking for a $4-4.5 million player with the #2 pick comes to fruition. It’s pick #11 that has slot money of about $4.5 million, and it seems like Kjerstad should expect to be off the board before that comes along. I don’t know how those pieces of information fit together.

In his call with O’s reporters yesterday, Elias said that there are five players the O’s are looking at for the #2 pick. Kjerstad appears to be one of the five guys, if not the most likely of the five guys. But a lot can happen in a day leading up to the draft, and maybe a high school player or two the Orioles really, really like will be willing to sign for that extra money and they won’t be able to pass up that opportunity. We’ll find out tomorrow night.