The Orioles made a bunch of cuts this week, almost all expected: youngsters like Jackson Holliday, Connor Norby, Kyle Dowdy and precocious big bopper Coby Mayo. More interesting, though, was one cut the team didn’t make: Heston Kjerstad, the 24-year old lefty slugger with a grand total of 65 pro games under his belt and zero Double-A experience.
Perhaps the flashiest of the 15 remaining non-roster invitees, Kjerstad is turning heads this spring, flashing not just contact ability, gap-to-gap power and an impressive set of wheels, but also a preparedness to face MLB-caliber pitching that could seriously accelerate his ETA in the majors.
In 16 games so far, the former Razorback and current O’s No. 6 prospect is slashing .444/.464/.889 with a beefy 1.353 OPS. His 12 hits include five of the extra-base variety, not to mention a tied-for-team-leading three home runs (with Austin Hays). About the only thing Kjerstad is not doing on offense is taking walks (1 BB in 28 PAs). That’s OK. If I were a non-roster invitee to Orioles spring training trying to make an impression, I’d be swinging, too.
Here’s that sweet swing and easy power on display, as Kjerstad thwacks a line-drive home run during Monday’s game:
One very important person is taking note of Kjerstad’s fireworks. Last Friday Orioles skipper Brandon Hyde told reporters:
I was just looking forward to watching him play [this spring]. I had never seen him play. What’s been remarkable is how hard he hits the baseball. Really impressive. This guy’s going to grow into a really good hitter, potential huge power guy. He’s looking to do damage at the plate, and he puts swings on the baseball like he’s trying to do damage. … He’s one of the ones I’ve been really impressed with so far this spring.
Pretty glowing remarks from Hyde. Asked a couple days later if Kjerstad playing in the majors this year is a possibility, Hyde answered: “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.”
Does the 24-year-old have a shot to crack the roster in two weeks? No, in addition to being premature, it’s a moon shot given the glut of left-handed corner bats making noise this spring. Even so, for a dude who, not three years ago, was convalescing with an inflamed heart, things are looking pretty good right now.
Plucked second overall out of the University of Arkansas in 2020, a high-contact/-power college bat Mike Elias considered the best left-handed hitter in the country, Kjerstad was supposed to zoom through the O’s farm system. But his pro career got off to the rockiest of starts when the minors were shut down in 2020, and Kjerstad himself was shut down with myocarditis thereafter.
Finally making his pro debut 27 months later in summer 2022, Kjerstad tore through Low-A pitching with a .463 average, .650 slugging and 1.210 OPS for the Delmarva Shorebirds. But after being promoted to High-A ball, Kjerstad hit a speed bump, struggling to a .233/.312/.362 slashline over 43 games.
The Orioles were concerned enough with this performance that they sent Kjerstad to the Arizona Fall League to get a little more seasoning. Kjerstad responded in a big way, putting up a .357 average and 1.007 OPS with the Scottsdale Scorpions that earned AFL Most Valuable Player honors. Watching Kjerstad hit that fall, MLB’s Jim Callis reflected that, even if AFL stats have to be taken “with a grain of salt,” Kjerstad still “looks like the guy, the No. 2 pick in the draft from a few years ago[,] the guy I thought was the best left-handed college power hitter in that draft.” Callis sees in Kjerstad a potential future .250-.260-average, 30-homer major leaguer.
Despite Kjerstad’s blazing-hot spring, it seems that a glaring lack of pro ball experience and his slow start in Aberdeen last year make him likely to start the 2023 season in Double-A Bowie. This also seems reasonable since Double-A is a level Kjerstad has not played a single game at yet. All that being said, if Kjerstad hits well there, I’d expect a quick trigger finger from the front office and an early-summer promotion to Triple-A Norfolk.
After that, who knows what his timeline might be? My bet, if this is what he’ll continue to do to MLB pitching, is an accelerated one. This will not be a “Where is Adley Rutschman??” situation, as agonized Baltimore fans waited for news from Triple-A Norfolk early last summer. Kjerstad’s not young for a prospect, and he doesn’t play a tricky position like catcher that requires as much subtlety and judgment. As Double-A Bowie manager Kyle Moore explained, “[W]ith his age and what he’s gone through, which is a lot of adversity, if he goes to Double-A and really plays well, then he’s got to be pretty close.”
Asked earlier this spring if he is limited at all physically, Kjerstad responded emphatically, “No chance. I’m feeling good, feeling great.” I’m excited to see just how far his big bat can take him this season.