When rosters were revealed last month for every team in the Arizona Fall League, Heston Kjerstad led a group of seven Orioles assigned to the Scottsdale Scorpions. He was the biggest name as the second-overall selection in the 2020 draft. He was the biggest deal because, quite simply, everything Kjerstad does warrants our attention.
The draft status, the myocarditis diagnosis, the hamstring injury in March that further delayed his professional debut. The questions about whether Kjerstad would be able to lead a normal, healthy life. Forget baseball for a moment.
But just for a moment.
It always comes back to the game when a player chosen in the first round threatens to be – cruel word alert – a “bust.” But the Orioles weren’t giving up on Kjerstad and he certainly didn’t give up on himself. His attitude remained remarkably positive, and he understood and appreciated the organization’s careful handling of him.
You don’t play around with inflammation of a heart muscle. And on a much smaller scale, you don’t rush the return from a hamstring strain.
Kjerstad accumulated 284 plate appearances over 65 games between Single-A Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen. He was a beast in the Carolina League, batting .463/.551/.650 in 22 games with the Shorebirds. There was an adjustment period in the South Atlantic League, but Kjerstad finished strong, producing three multi-hit games in his last five in August and going 9-for-27 in his last seven games in September – with seven hits in his final 16 at-bats – heading into the playoffs.
The surge left Kjerstad with a .290/.313/.484 line in September, and he posted a .364 average in the semifinal round against Brooklyn, including a two-run double in the decisive third game.
In six playoff games, Kjerstad went 6-for-23 with two doubles, a triple, six RBIs and four runs scored. A sweet finish to his comeback story. Except it wasn’t done.
It made sense to get him more plate appearances in the AFL. It also became clearer, if any doubts lingered outside the organization, that he was full-go.
A scout with another team who watched Kjerstad in the AFL wondered whether the Orioles would place any restrictions on the young outfielder based on his history with myocarditis. If Kjerstad might have his at-bats doled out carefully.
Kjerstad entered yesterday with 17 games played for Scottsdale and was batting .347/.383/.627 with five home runs that tied for the league lead. His 26 hits ranked first, his 17 RBIs were second, and his six doubles were tied for second.
The only negative was the 24 strikeouts that also ranked second.
“Good size kid, good frame,” the scout said. “He was red-hot the first week he was out there. I will say the pitching is kind of watered down versus what it’s been in the past. I don’t feel like the pitching quality is nearly as good as what it’s been in years past, but with that being said, he looks good physically. It’s really good to see him out there, just given everything that he’s been through. To see him healthy."
The scout offered a comp to a player who just hit 46 home runs this season to lead the National League.
“I kind of equate it to that Kyle Schwarber-type role," he said. "Pop at the plate, he hits it hard, and you take what you get on defense because you want to have the bat in the lineup every day. He’s interesting. He has a chance to be an everyday big leaguer. He’s got power to all fields. He can go to the off-gap like, it’s easy for him.
“They’ll probably do a good job of managing his reps next year since that’s his first full season, but as long as the past stuff doesn’t hinder him, he’s got a chance to be in the lineup every day. If it’s a constant kind of, you’ve got to manage his reps and he’s only going to play like 110 out of 162, it doesn’t hurt his value per se, you just look at the matchups and make sure you’re picking your right spots. If you’re facing a tough lefty starter-wise, then it’s, ‘Hey, we’re going to give you a blow today.’ But he was fun to watch, man. He really was.”
The scout really liked Kjerstad’s arm and grew to appreciate it in games rather than during drills before or after batting practice.
“He doesn’t put a lot of effort into his throws when he’s doing ins-outs, but then all of a sudden … I gave him an above-average arm because when he needs it, it’s there. He just doesn’t waste your time showing it to you in drills.”
On the night of the draft, executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias talked about the expectation of Kjerstad playing right field at Camden Yards. And in the not-too-distant future.
The position was decided, and the opposing scout agrees that’s exactly where Kjerstad belongs.
“Especially in Camden Yards, it works,” he said. “It’s kind of a shorter porch, the high wall. You put him out there with the right center fielder, he’ll be fine defensively. And now with the left field fence being moved back and you need a little bit more range from your left fielder, that puts him as a right field/DH role for me."
Kjerstad already proved that he can overcome adversity, bounce back from the worst breaks. The sport and its fickle nature certainly won’t discourage him.
“I’m just really impressed by his overall work ethic,” the scout said. “It would have been easy for him to say, ‘Well, this happened unfortunately and I wasn’t able to live out my dream. But I got my money as a first round pick.’ But I think that speaks volumes to his character and his work ethic. And all of his teammates, everybody seems to gravitate toward him. He seems like he’s having a great time on the field.
“The diagnosis could have easily derailed his career, and it didn’t.”