After drafting collegiate catcher Adley Rutschman first overall in 2019, the Orioles’ encore the following year would be the second overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. With it, they decided to choose another college bat, and unlike Rutschman, no one saw Heston Kjerstad’s selection coming.
Although it’s going to be quite a while before the front office’s work on these picks can be judged — Kjerstad in particular — they represent potential cornerstones for the franchise.
The Orioles weren’t the first team to select Heston Kjerstad in the MLB Draft. That distinction went to the Seattle Mariners in 2017, when they made the left-handed hitter a 36th round selection out of Canyon Randall high school in Amarillo, TX. Instead of signing with Seattle, Kjerstad opted to play college ball in the SEC for the Arkansas Razorbacks.
He spent three seasons at Arkansas, with his junior year in 2020 being his last in the NCAA. Before Covid-19 brought an abrupt end to the college baseball season last year, Kjerstad was setting a torrid pace through 67 at-bats, slashing .448/.513/.791 with six home runs, five doubles, seven walks, nine strikeouts, and a 1.304 OPS.
His freshman and sophomore seasons weren’t too bad either. In 2018, then 19-year-old Kjerstad hit 14 home runs and 16 doubles along with a .332/.419/.553 batting line. He put up similar production in 2019, hitting 17 home runs, 13 doubles, and one triple while slashing .327/.400/.575.
The Orioles surprised many people when they selected Heston Kjerstad second overall, as Camden Chat’s own Mark Brown wrote last June. Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson went first to the Tigers, and Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin was widely considered the second-best hitting talent. Yet, he fell to the Blue Jays at No. 7.
The conjecture after last year’s draft was that Baltimore took Kjerstad second overall, in part, because of the ability to sign him to an under-slot deal. MLB.com’s Joe Trezza explained that point in a piece last summer, shortly after the draft:
That the Orioles felt they could sign Kjerstad at such a discount emboldened them to take bigger gambles later in the Draft. Of the $2.6 million they theoretically saved on Kjerstad, roughly $2.3 million was repurposed in above-slot agreements with fourth-rounder Coby Mayo ($1.75 million, roughly $1.2 million over slot) and fifth-rounder Carter Baumler ($1.5 million, roughly $1.1 million over slot)...
In that same article, Mike Elias offered some detail on why the O’s took Kjerstad when they did:
What we saw to lead us to select Heston was a rare combination of power and the ability to hit for average, and what we feel is a swing and [an] approach that will convert that production to the professional game.”
Yet Kjerstad’s swing mechanics are a sticking point for some prognosticators who worry about the young hitter’s projectability. As ESPN’s Dan Mullen described it in a 2020 Baltimore Sun post-draft analysis, Kjerstad’s “swing has a lot of moving parts, including a pause with a big leg kick.”
But several baseball people offered favorable comparisons in that Baltimore Sun article too. Mike Axisa of CBS Sports listed Corey Dickerson as a comparable for Kjerstad, and Orioles legend Jim Palmer compared him to Todd Helton.
Kjerstad checks in at 6’ 3”, 205 pounds, according to Baseball-Reference, and there’s plenty of left-handed power to go along with that big frame. His hitting profile projects well for Camden Yards with the short porch in right field, and hopefully, O’s fans will have the chance to see him launch plenty of long balls onto the flag court, and even onto Eutaw Street.
And still, the young power hitter has some catching up to do. When Baltimore set up its alternate training site at Bowie last season and included many of their top young talents, including Adley Rutschman, Kjerstad was not involved.
The 22-year-old outfielder missed last season due to myocarditis and was only recently cleared for baseball activities. Jim Callis tweeted about a workout progression that could take months before Kjerstad plays in a real game.
If the young outfielder can deliver on the hitting and power potential, he has the chance to be a mainstay at one of the outfield corners and in the middle of the O’s lineup for years. A cleanup hitter with consistent 30-40 home run potential year in and year out could do wonders for the offensive profile of the club.
MLB Pipeline currently has Kjerstad listed as the Orioles third-best prospect, sandwiched between Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. They’ve also got his fielding and arm tools ranked as 50 and 55, respectively, on the 20-80 scouts’ grading scale. Granted, there are some who think Kjerstad will have trouble sticking in the outfield and is destined for a full-time designated hitter role in the bigs.
But considering that he’s yet to appear in a professional baseball game since being drafted, don’t expect Kjerstad in the majors soon. The conservative estimate for his major league debut is sometime in 2023 or 2024, with Fangraphs projecting the latter.
It will be interesting to see which affiliate the O’s place Kjerstad with next month. He seems destined for Single-A, with an outside chance of getting to Double-A at some point this year. As a former collegiate player — and former member of the SEC, to boot — Kjerstad is an advanced hitter with the chance to move quickly through the system. Needless to say, he has a lot of time to make up for with last year’s lost season and his ongoing comeback from myocarditis.
He will surely be one of the most-watched players in the O’s minor league system this year. And after the unique situation baseball faced last year, including the lack of a minor league season, scrutinizing young players like Kjerstad in the farm system is something fans can embrace again openly in 2021.