The fact that Heston Kjerstad is wearing a big league uniform in the picture above speaks volumes about his 2023 season.
Kjerstad’s battle with myocarditis has been well documented. The Orioles selected the University of Arkansas product second overall in the 2020 draft, but Kjerstad missed two full years of baseball with heart inflammation. Through no fault of his own, he quickly became an afterthought in a system filled with impressive young players.
Kjerstad finally returned to professional baseball in 2022. He worked around a hamstring injury, dominated Low-A competition, and finally showed some rust when he arrived in Aberdeen. Kjerstad posted a ridiculous .463/.551/.650 slashline at Delmarva, but delivered a more modest .233/.312/.362 line over 43 games with the IronBirds.
Kjerstad rebooted the hype train with an impressive showing in the Arizona Fall League, but few could have anticipated this type of breakout year for the 24-year-old.
The Orioles often invite their best prospects to spring training. Top pick Jackson Holliday led a star-studded group of youngsters that were never in consideration for an Opening Day roster spot but still expected to play a role down the road.
Kjerstad outshined his peers with a .381 average and four homers before finally being optioned to minor-league camp. He had some wondering all the way back in March whether he could force his way to Baltimore in 2023.
He justified the discussion with strong play, but a big league debut still felt a touch unrealistic. Kjerstad had never played above High-A, and previous health concerns left room for some uncertainty.
Brandon Hyde admitted that he had never really seen Kjerstad play before last spring. When asked if Kjerstad could debut in 2023, Hyde said, “I think it’s been done before, so I wouldn’t put anything past it. That’s very, very challenging to do. But you never know.”
We didn’t know that Kjerstad would slash .310/.384/.576 in his first 46 games at Bowie. We didn’t know that he would blast 11 homers with 23 RBIs for the Baysox. We certainly didn’t know that he would post a .298/.371/.498 at Triple-A despite slotting multiple years below the average age of the league, and we didn’t know that he would stay healthy.
The Orioles promoted Kjerstad to Norfolk on June 4, and he did everything required to justify a September call to the show. He took walks (42), hit dingers (21), and displayed some defensive versatility at both Bowie and Norfolk. He played a lot of corner outfield, but made 16 appearances at first base with Bowie and an additional 22 with the Tides.
Baltimore selected Kjerstad’s contract on September 14. The move marked a monumental moment for the player, but the Orioles did not bring him up for the sake of the story. The O’s viewed Kjerstad as a left-handed power bat that could do damage against righties. He finished the season 7-for-30 with a pair of walks and two home runs.
The Orioles did not ask Kjerstad to face lefties, so the rookie often appeared late in games or exited early depending on the matchup. He flashed his power right away with a solo home run for his first MLB hit against the Rays.
The Orioles opted to include Kjerstad on their ALDS roster over Ryan McKenna and fellow rookie Colton Cowser. The decision showed that Baltimore valued his impact bat over the benefit of a defensive replacement. What does it say about his place on the roster moving forward?
Will he be on the 2024 Orioles?
It’s unclear if the Orioles consider Kjerstad completely untouchable in trade talks, but it certainly would take a talented player to prompt the Birds to let him go. The Orioles still have three veteran outfielders, and Cowser will figure into the conversation once again, but there’s room for all five next season.
His minor league splits indicate an ability to hit lefties, and Kjerstad will have options remaining if he ever scuffles at the plate. The Orioles never asked Kjerstad to play first at the big league level last year, but competent defense at multiple positions will only help his cause when Hyde writes the lineup card each day.
2023 prospect reviews: Alex Pham/Trace Bright, Billy Cook/John Rhodes, International Prospects, Carter Baumler/Seth Johnson, Creed Willems, Justin Armbruester, Max Wagner, Jud Fabian, Mac Horvath, Cade Povich, Chayce McDermott, Dylan Beavers, Enrique Bradfield Jr., Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, Samuel Basallo, Coby Mayo
Tomorrow: Colton Cowser