After AFL MVP honor, Heston Kjerstad is ready for big league spring training shot

Outfield prospect Heston Kjerstad is trending up, and he’s soaking in all of it. After all, he had to wait 27 months between his last game for the University of Arkansas and his first pro game, which he played June 10 for the Delmarva Shorebirds, the Orioles' Single-A affiliate.

In between the two, a pandemic ended his 2020 Arkansas season early. Then myocarditis kept him out of the 2021 season and a hamstring issue kept him off an opening day roster last year. Talk about a long wait to play. But the 23-year-old lefty hitter started to look like his old self late last year. He had a strong finish for High-A Aberdeen, carried that into the league playoffs and then was named MVP of the Arizona Fall League.

So it was easy to understand his emphatic answer when he was asked if he is limited at all physically as spring training is about to begin.

“No chance. I’m feeling good, feeling great,” Kjerstad said during last Saturday’s happy hour Birdland Caravan stop in Baltimore. “Luckily, got everything else behind me and just ready to focus on this season. Play a lot of baseball and, hopefully, work my way up.”

And for him it will start at major league spring training. He was one of the non-roster invitees to big league camp.

“Super excited. You know, just to be able to be invited is an honor, and to go out and work with the big league coaching staff and be around the big league players is going to be a huge learning opportunity and a chance for me to help improve my game," Kjerstad said.

“That is probably the best I felt, for sure. And hopefully, kind of roll that into spring training and hopefully continue that this season.”

In 65 games between Delmarva and Aberdeen, Kjerstad hit .309/.394/.457/.851 with a 1.201 OPS for the Shorebirds and .674 for the IronBirds. But his OPS at Aberdeen was .797 in September, and then he rolled into the AFL and was raking. Over 22 games he hit five homers with a 1.007 OPS and led the AFL in hits, extra-base hits, doubles and total bases.

Likely to begin this year at Double-A Bowie, he is optimistic he could make the majors at some point.

“Oh, for sure. I don’t think anything is out of the picture," Kjerstad said. "If they need a guy and you’re the right guy at the time, you get your chance. If I can stay healthy and play good, there is a chance for that, for any player in the org.”

And even after missing so much time, something he said players in rehab in Florida referred to as “a small setback, for a big comeback,” he said he never doubted he would return to 100 percent to chase the big league dream.

“No chance. I stayed positive the whole time," Kjerstad said. "You know, we all go through things as athletes, setbacks, but those are all learning moments to prepare you for what is to come in the future.”

Kjerstad’s comeback turned some heads in Arizona, where, according to reports, various scouts thought he was among the best prospects in the AFL, if not the best. ranked him 80th in its recent top 100, and as the sixth-highest-rated Orioles prospect.

“It’s good to see when people respect what you have been doing,” he said of such rankings. “But, at the end of the day, whether you are on the list or how high you are on the list or anything like that, you have to go out and play. You have to earn your job, put up numbers and help the team win. You have to go produce, whether you are highly ranked or not. You have to prove it every day, and that’s what I am looking forward to doing this season.”

Kjerstad told reporters the camaraderie on the O’s farm is outstanding. Asked why the club's minor league system has become ranked by many outlets as No. 1, he replied:

“The players is where you start. There are so many special guys that are not only talented, but really work hard. It’s so deep. The front office has done a great job of assembling a bunch of prospects that are going to be really great players. We are flooded so much that you could get stuck on five guys and there are still another five to 10 behind them. In most orgs, they would be the guys always talked about. But we’re stacked. Lot of great players that will hopefully come up to Baltimore and help the team win.”

It is great to see Kjerstad back all the way. Late last season he looked like the player the Orioles expected when they selected him No. 2 overall in the shortened 2020 draft. And he was soaking up the experience last weekend at Birdland Caravan.

“It’s awesome to experience the fans," Kjerstad said. "They love the O’s, they love the Birds and it’s cool to see this fan base getting behind the team. The city loves baseball, and we love the fans too.”

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