Spring training games are underway at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, and with every new spring comes the renewal of our license to dream. After seeing the first wave of new talent reach the big leagues in 2022, the current dreams of many Orioles fans center on the players set to make their debuts this season.
For every discussion of whether or not Grayson Rodriguez will make the opening day rotation, there are those dreaming of just how dominant the young right-hander will be. For every fan debating how the likes of Anthony Santander, Austin Hays, Ryan McKenna and Kyle Stowers should be used across the outfield, there are those eagerly dreaming of the moment Colton Cowser takes his place as an everyday starter.
Without a doubt, though, the Baby Bird that represents both the biggest enigma and the loftiest of dreams is outfielder Heston Kjerstad. His two home runs to begin spring ball on Saturday served as a reminder of the extreme level of talent the former No. 2 overall pick possesses.
Orioles’ Heston Kjerstad was the 2nd overall pick in 2020 but missed over a year after developing a heart condition— Farm To Fame (@FarmToFame_) February 26, 2023
He played in his first Spring Training game ever yesterday
And went 3-for-3 after homering in both his first TWO ABs
At times, there was a foreboding sense that Kjerstad would epitomize the idea that Mike Elias’ draft approach was not infallible. Every time people lauded draft success stories like Gunnar Henderson, Joey Ortiz, Coby Mayo, there would be someone to say “yeah, well what about Kjerstad?”
Between the effects of the pandemic and bouts of myocarditis and hamstring problems, the former Arkansas Razorback found himself in a bit of wilderness to begin his professional career. And for the longest time, the way Kjerstad began his time as an Oriole stilled loomed over Birdland’s dreams for the player.
After all, the sweet-swinging lefty’s first full professional season could best be described as a roller coaster. He began the year dominating at Low-A Delmarva—to the tune of a .463/.551/.650 triple slash over 22 games—only for expectations to be quickly tempered upon his arrival in Aberdeen.
Over his first two months as an IronBird, Kjerstad managed only a .220 average with more strikeouts (37) than hits (29). His prodigious power was also missing in action, as he mustered just two home runs and nine total extra-base hits over those first 35 games at High-A. While it was nice to see Kjerstad playing regular baseball after his two-year hiatus, the results still spoke to a player whose luster as a prospect had certainly dimmed.
Then the calendar turned to September 2022 and a new Kjerstad emerged. The outfielder finished the minor league season with a much-improved showing, raising his average to .278 while boosting his slugging percentage by 130 points. He was once again driving the ball with authority and—more importantly—consistency.
This rise in production culminated with his most impressive feat to date: taking home MVP honors in the Arizona Fall League. Facing a level of competition more similar to what he’s likely to see at Double-A, Kjerstad put up a jaw-dropping .357/.385/.622 triple slash with a league-leading 15 XBHs. The Fall League performance represented a full-circle moment for Kjerstad, with him finally reestablishing the momentum as a prospect that he had when he was drafted.
With Kjerstad’s development finally hitting a positive upswing, the questions now surrounding him are “can he continue this hot streak at higher levels?” and “what does his path look like if he can?” While it seems likely that Kjerstad begins the season back at High-A, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see him in Bowie come May.
Then, once a prospect reaches the Double-A level, he’s only one hot month away from a call-up directly to the bigs. This feels especially true for a prospect like Kjerstad. The outfielder is entering his age-24 season and offers a power upside that no one in Baltimore—outside of maybe Gunnar Henderson—currently offers. That mix of age and power threat should mean the front office is willing to give him a shot in Baltimore.
Elias & Co. drafted Kjerstad thinking/hoping they were getting someone who could put up Yordan Alvarez/Kyle Schwarber power numbers as a left-handed hitting outfielder. Even with the graduation of Kyle Stowers and the impending promotion of Cowser, Kjerstad offers a skill set that the current mix of O’s outfielders doesn’t possess. For those that yearn for the days of Nelson Cruz or Mark Trumbo patrolling the corner outfield while launching 40+ HRs, Kjerstad is the answer to that yearning.
And yes, usually it’s a little far-fetched to think that a player could go from struggling at High-A to making a major league roster in a year’s time. However, this current iteration of the Orioles organization has shown a particular talent for unlocking talent at seemingly a moment’s notice. After all, a year ago no one expected Felix Bautista, Kyle Bradish and Gunnar Henderson to make meaningful impacts for the Orioles in 2022.
Yes, the organizational outfield depth has certainly grown considerably from the days of rolling out Dwight Smith Jr., Stevie Wilkerson and Joey Rickard. To earn a role in Baltimore, Kjerstad will have to not only show continued growth but fight off competition from Stowers, Cowser, Adam Frazier, Terrin Vavra and more. It won’t be an easy task. However, the Orioles are not building this team just to be better than they were before the rebuild. Elias, Brandon Hyde and the rest of the team’s decision-makers are building a team that can compete with the best of the American League. The big lefty’s power in the middle of the lineup can help them do just that. So if Kjerstad is launching home runs in Bowie or Norfolk later this year, the front office should not hesitate to bring him up this season.