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Orioles prospect season in review: Heston Kjerstad

The 2020 first round pick finally got onto a diamond this year.

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Scottsdale Scorpions v. Peoria Javelinas
Heston Kjerstad in action in Arizona.
Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

From the day Heston Kjerstad was drafted by the Orioles with the second overall pick in 2020 to the day he played his first game for an O’s affiliate, two years and one day passed. The 2020 summer alternate training sites and fall instructional camps, and the 2021 spring training and minor league seasons, went on without Kjerstad while he was kept out of action by myocarditis. When finally recovered from that, he suffered a hamstring injury in spring training of this year that kept him from debuting for another couple of months.

This fact hovers over everything when trying to look at Kjerstad as a prospect. While it’s not all that unusual for players to miss an entire season due to an injury, missing two is much less common. What’s more, Kjerstad’s issue with myocarditis so serious he couldn’t really do anything baseball-related at all for a year, was pretty much unique to him in American sports. When players need surgery for something or other, there’s something of a roadmap that can be followed. Kjerstad, because of all he’s been through, is on his own path.

No one could have scripted a better outcome for what happened when Kjerstad finally got into organized games. The outfielder blasted through Low-A competition for about a month, hitting .463/.551/.650 in 22 games. Even with the hiatus he had forced upon him, Kjerstad was immediately, vastly better than that level. The Orioles took that sign and didn’t waste much time in kicking Kjerstad, now 23, up a level to High-A Aberdeen.

It would be nice if after all Kjerstad has been through to get this far, he could have enjoyed an uninterrupted string of success up towards the major league level. That’s just not how things worked out. Still old for his new level, Kjerstad finished off the season with 43 games for the IronBirds, in which he hit .233/.312/.362. All is not lost because Kjerstad is going through a rough patch now that he’s finally back and playing. It’s just a halt to the hype train.

The Athletic’s Keith Law wrote about Kjerstad towards the end of August, based on several looks he’d seen through the summer months:

... he has lost more than two full years of at-bats, and the rust has been visible. I’ve seen him struggle badly with timing and fail to get to average velocity middle-up in the zone — pitches he should be able to handle. He does still have great bat speed, and he’s not striking out very often, but he’s mistiming enough that the contact quality hasn’t been there since he moved up to High-A Aberdeen.

Some rust is surely to be expected. As mentioned before, Kjerstad’s specific struggle is not something players go through all of the time. His recovery from that is going to look different as well. The Orioles will surely be hoping that all of the talent they saw in Kjerstad that led him to be drafted at #2 overall can shine through, given time. 65 games is not that much time.

No surprise that the Orioles have sent Kjerstad out to the Arizona Fall League this month to try to get in some more game action this year and shake off some more of that rust. AFL competition might even give him some looks at pitchers who are tougher than the High-A level would have offered Kjerstad.

Three weeks into that AFL action, the on-paper results for Kjerstad have been pretty good. He’s batting .373/.403/.661 through 13 games and leads all AFL batters in hits and total bases while being tied for the home run lead, with four dingers hit. It’s an offense-heavy league so far, with batters combining to hit an .803 OPS and teams scoring 6.12 runs per team per game on average. Kjerstad is well above average there, so he still stands out.

Law remains unimpressed. He tucked a note on Kjerstad into his AFL roundup this week, writing similarly to his August impression: “I saw more of the same rust that I saw from him during the regular season. He was behind good velocity and had some trouble picking up off-speed stuff, even from right-handers. ... I’m still rooting for him but also concerned that he had such trouble with average major-league stuff every time I saw him.”

Kjerstad isn’t facing every team’s top pitching prospect out there. The Orioles didn’t send Grayson Rodriguez to Arizona and other teams haven’t sent their best guys out there either. Even if that was who he was facing, it’s still only a 13-game sample size. There is not much to say about Law’s note except to hope that Kjerstad can overcome it with time.

There is still time. Although Kjerstad is never going to be the prospect who rushes up through the minors quickly, there are plenty of players who debut later who play useful roles and have nice careers. In terms of roster machinations, the Orioles have another year before they have to decide whether to protect Kjerstad from the Rule 5 draft.

Unless 2023 is a disaster, we can assume they will do this, giving more time to see if Kjerstad can shake off that rust and live up to the potential that made MLB Pipeline call him “the best left-handed power bat among college hitters in his draft class.” That site, which still counts Kjerstad as the #9 prospect in the Orioles system, continues to believe that Kjerstad could end up as a “middle-of-the-order hitter, a bat-first corner outfielder with an above-average arm and who moves well enough to profile in right field long-term.”

We can all hope that evaluation about Kjerstad is the one that proves right. Kjerstad has worked hard to overcome the challenges he’s been dealt, and the Orioles organization isn’t going to turn down a “surprise” extra outfielder in the mix. If the O’s like what they’ve seen from Kjerstad in Arizona, they might even start him off at Double-A Bowie even though his Aberdeen time this year didn’t go well. We’ll find out next spring whether Kjerstad can keep climbing now that he’s finally getting to play.

Previously: Fallen prospect roundup, Jean Pinto, Darell Hernaiz, Drew Rom, international prospect roundup, César Prieto, Mike Baumann, Hudson Haskin, John Rhodes and Reed Trimble, Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott, Joey Ortiz, Terrin Vavra, injured pitcher roundup, Coby Mayo, Kyle Stowers

Tomorrow: Jordan Westburg