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Austin Hays’ success provides the Orioles with a blueprint for Heston Kjerstad

With the minor league debut of the former #2 pick, fans can find hope in the path Hays and others took to Baltimore.

2020 Major League Baseball Draft Photo by MLB Photos via Getty Images

This past week’s most important news regarding the continued progress of the Orioles’ rebuild should have been the return of former #2 pick Heston Kjerstad (couldn’t let your fellow outfielder hog the limelight, huh, Kyle Stowers). Even with some of the luster of Kjerstad’s debut now somewhat diminished, it still marks another important milestone in the brick-by-brick rebuild that will (eventually, hopefully) turn the Orioles into a warehouse-sized baseball power.

At the time of his drafting, Kjerstad ranked as the Orioles’ #3 overall prospect—ahead of the likes of Ryan Mountcastle, DL Hall, and Gunnar Henderson. A sweet-swinging lefty who showed immense power potential in college baseball’s best conference, it was easy to imagine Kjerstad as the clean-up hitter behind Adley Rutschman in future Orioles lineups.

Since draft night, however, things have largely taken a turn for the worst. Bouts with COVID-19, myocarditis, and a hamstring injury meant that 821 days passed between Kjerstad’s last swing as a member of the Arkansas Razorbacks and his first swing as a member of the Orioles organization. That time off saw him drop from #3 to #9 in the Orioles prospect rankings and drop out of the MLB’s Top 100 prospect list altogether.

If we think back, though, this is far from the first time that a once especially promising Orioles outfield prospect had seemingly fallen out of the upper echelon of prospects. In the path Kjerstad now has before him, there are a lot of similarities to the one Austin Hays took to get where he is today.

When Hays made his big league debut as a September call-up in 2017, he was a meteorically-rising star who seemed destined to be the spiritual successor to Nick Markakis in right field. That’s the kind of hype that comes when you’re drafted in June 2016 and make your first appearance in the bigs in September 2017.

Then, much like what Kjerstad had to suffer through, Hays’ career was largely put on pause due to health concerns. After entering 2018 as the #23 prospect in all of baseball, shoulder problems and an ankle fracture limited Hays to 75 games that year—none above the AA level. Just under two years passed between Hays’ last major-league at-bat in 2017 and his next appearance for the Orioles in 2019. In other words, that rising meteor seemed to have veered right into the sun.

Yet, if we have learned anything from the last two years of Orioles baseball, it’s that this Mike Elias-led organization can mold any player into a star. Something that baseball fans often struggle with is the misconception that all top prospects should and will take linear paths to MLB stardom. The expectation becomes, “Well, if Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto all debuted at 19, our guy debuting at 24 or 25 must mean there’s no way he’ll be any good.” Or, at the very least, that’s the mental trap that it’s easy to fall into.

The Orioles have begun to master a different plan, though. Getting knocked down and then bouncing back has become somewhat of a staple for this generation of Orioles. Hays bounced back from a litany of injuries to become a staple in the top half of the Orioles lineup. Cedric Mullins bounced back from a horrendous start to the season in 2019, and multiple demotions, to become an All-Star starter in 2021. Trey Mancini bounced back from colon cancer to become a player on the verge of his first All-Star appearance in 2022.

The Orioles’ recent track record suggests that we shouldn’t be surprised when the big lefty from Amarillo, TX, shows us why he was worth the No. 2 pick. After all, he’s already gone 3-for-7 in his first two games with Delmarva—like he never left! We as Orioles fans just need to give him the benefit of patience.

The only question this writer has about Kjerstad is not about his ability to become major league ready. Rather, it is about how he’ll stack up to the abundance of talent in the Orioles outfield once he becomes major league ready. It certainly feels like the outfield is where the O’s already have the most established talent. Hays, Mullins and Anthony Santander have become so entrenched as the starting outfield trio that Mancini has only seen 62 innings in the OF this season, and Ryan Mountcastle none.

That’s to say nothing of the other outfield prospects Kjerstad is chasing down as he starts his development. As our own Tyler Young recently pointed out, Stowers will probably not stick around in the majors for an extended time this season. However, the fact the Orioles were willing to promote him shows that the front office feels he is major-league ready—no matter how long he sticks on the 26-man roster. Then there’s 2021 first-round pick Colton Cowser, currently the Orioles' #4 prospect. Cowser is not only a year younger than Kjerstad, but already has a 300+ at-bat edge in terms of minor league experience. Even the most generous organizational depth chart would undoubtedly put Kjerstad as the Birds' sixth outfielder currently.

While Kjerstad’s past and present draw a lot of parallels to that of Hays, his future may ultimately be more intertwined with that of Trey Mancini. The prevailing feeling around baseball is that Mancini’s hot start to the season may make him a highly-coveted asset at the trade deadline. While baseball is always more of a series of dominos rather than a simple cause and effect, Boom Boom’s potential departure would definitely create a clearer potential path to the bigs for Kjerstad. Projecting as a “bat-first corner outfielder”, at-bats at DH will likely be Kjerstad’s first opportunity to make an impact in Baltimore. Those at-bats would be much harder to come by if Mancini is still sporting Orange and Black past 2023.

The complexities of projecting the Orioles’ outfield of the future shouldn’t take away from the bottom line: Kjerstad being healthy again is great news no matter which way you slice it. How big a brick he becomes in what the Orioles are building is something that only time (and patience) will prove.