On the day that Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias selected Heston Kjerstad in the 2020 draft, he talked about the second-overall pick playing right field at Camden Yards. As if the position was just waiting for him.
The diagnosis of myocarditis and a hamstring injury prolonged the wait, but Kjerstad made his major league debut on Sept. 14 and was put on the American League Division Series roster. His power could make jaws drop. But would his defense keep him in the field?
Fly balls dropping wouldn’t work in any ballpark.
The Orioles are geared toward getting Kjerstad more comfortable in the corners. He made 37 starts at first base in the minors last year, but they don’t see his future in the infield. In an emergency, perhaps, but they want to develop him where they pictured him.
I’ve talked to scouts from outside the organization who believe that Kjerstad can be, at the least, an average defender with room to grow. Capable of getting better jumps, taking better routes and covering more ground.
First base coach Anthony Sanders, who’s also the club’s outfield instructor, isn’t setting any limits.
“I’ve seen nothing but improvement,” Sanders said on the first day of the Birdland Caravan. “I went down to spring training early with him last year and was really impressed, the way he moves around. You talk to other people, you probably hear more negative than positives about it, and then when I got to see a small sample size when he came up in September last year, I was super impressed.”
To the point where Kjerstad, the No. 32 prospect in MLB Pipeline's latest top 100 rankings, received an endorsement.
“There were conversations about him playing in some of those games late, and they came to me and I said, ‘I have no issues with him playing,’” Sanders recalled. “He works just as hard as anybody going back on balls, and to me it’s just an opportunity that’s waiting, and we’ll see what he can and can’t do. But I have total confidence in him out there.”
The Orioles take tremendous pride in their outfield defense, with Anthony Santander a Gold Glove finalist in 2020, Cedric Mullins in 2022 and Austin Hays last year. Ryan McKenna is trusted in all three spots and can serve as a late-inning replacement if necessary. Colton Cowser is developing into a solid center fielder with improved instincts, but he’s got more experience in right.
Hays must contend with the deeper and higher wall in left field and that funky angle at the bullpen area. The adjustments have been as smooth as a Ryan Gosling pickup line.
“I think it’s pretty special,” Sanders said. “When you watch other left fielders who come in this park and have to play that, and then you watch Haysy do it so easily, it’s a big value. And it’s a conversation that me and skip (Brandon Hyde) have all the time about going to different ballparks and who should play where, and it’s a no-brainer when you have a guy like Austin Hays, who can do some of the stuff that he does out there.”
McKenna is out of minor league options and losing his seat on the Triple-A shuttle. He’d have to clear waivers in order to be sent down.
A whole new world.
“Really, I have no control over any of that, so it’s just going out and playing and preparing and getting ready for another awesome season with the guys,” he said yesterday at Bowlero in Timonium. “Whatever happens will come to fruition, but I’m excited. It’s going to be a great year. It could look different, but I don’t know.”
McKenna avoided an arbitration hearing by signing for $800,000. He appeared to be propped on the non-tender bubble, but the Orioles got a deal done quickly.
“The thought crossed my mind but I wasn’t afraid,” he said. “It was pretty smooth, honestly. Us and the team were in good communication and I think it all went pretty smooth.”
McKenna is braced for a competitive spring training with a bevy of talented outfielders and limited roster space.
“It’s been very competitive for the last couple years now,” he said. “A lot of young talent, a lot of really good people. I can’t stress that enough. I think that’s what makes good teams is, you have to have both. I’m excited, it’s going to be great. I think that only brings the best out of you, so whatever ends up coming is going to be a good thing.”
* Tyler Wells and Cole Irvin are going through their winter workouts and reporting to spring training next month unsure of their roles but ready to contribute in any way asked of them.
“The whole offseason for me is just preparation for what could come,” Wells said yesterday at Bowlero. “I’m not really too focused on what the role is right now. As long as my body feels good and arm feels good and we’re going into camp healthy, that’s all that matters to me.”
“I’m building up as a starter,” Irvin said yesterday. “I’m going to do a couple up-downs before I show up at camp, 45-50 pitches, nothing too crazy. I’m not going to be completely built up, but I know that there’s a lot of expectations on our rotation, and good expectations. We had a great year last year as a staff and we’ve got a lot to build on. Mixing things up in the arsenal and things are coming out really good right now and I’m excited to get to camp.
“I think I had enough experience last year in the bullpen, eating innings out of there. Just whenever the number’s called, I’ll be ready. I think kind of the same mentality, same thought, going into this season is just, win ballgames. However we need to do it, we’re going to do it.”
Irvin isn't kicking back and presenting the Orioles with the same version of himself that they traded for last January.
“I made some adjustments to my arsenal this offseason," he said. "New sinker, new fastball, new four-seam. Changeup’s fine. I made adjustments to the cutter, refined it a little bit more to make it a little bit more devastating of a pitch. Adjustments to the slider and curveball. There was a part of my arsenal that was just kind of bland. Now I’ve got a lot more movement and higher velocity in terms of bullpens right now. So I’m excited for the year. I’m excited to just get to camp and be part of the group.
"We’ve got a rotation that I certainly think can get the job done as is right now, and wherever I fall in those plans is where I fall. I’m not worried about it. I’m just going to pitch and prepare to win baseball games when we get to day one.”
Wells is preparing physically for a heavier workload after making 20 starts last season but only three in the second half. He was optioned to Double-A Bowie and returned in September as a reliever.
Hyde hasn’t forgotten that Wells was in the All-Star discussion after posting a league-best 0.93 WHIP before the break. But Wells didn’t allow a run in 10 relief appearances, with five hitless innings after replacing the injured Kyle Bradish on April 3 in Texas.
“Honestly, I just had a couple bad starts,” Wells said of his second-half struggles out of the rotation, when he allowed 11 runs in 8 2/3 innings. “I kind of got out of whack, and for me as a bigger guy, it’s a little bit easier to fall out of whack and it’s a little bit harder to kind of get back into that timing. It’s baseball, though. You’re going to go through ups and downs, you’re going to go through peaks and valleys, and you’re going to have some failure, you’re going to have some success.
“For me, it was all about, how did I continue to approach that, and ultimately I would say that for myself, I think that I handled it as good as I could have and I think the results kind of spoke for themselves in that last leg. And I continue to try to take that into this offseason and really try to push that into this next season, as well.”
Asked whether he feels like he deserves another chance to start, Wells replied, “I don’t think I ever deserve anything.”
“I think the best way I can put it is, where am I best suited to help the team win, and I think I did that last year,” he added. “With what we were able to do going into the postseason and whatnot I think was kind of a testament for me to try to be as valuable as possible for the team. That’s kind of how the approach has been. I definitely don’t think that I deserve anything, but I’m going to come in each and every time just as I have the last three spring trainings to earn my spot.”
* Reliever Keegan Akin told media yesterday at UNION Craft Brewing that he's fully healthy and didn't need surgery on his injured back. He's throwing bullpen sessions.
Bruce Zimmermann told the group that he should be full-go in camp after core muscle surgery.
* Hyde will be at M&T Bank Stadium this afternoon for the AFC championship game between the Ravens and Chiefs.
Hyde has kept in touch with Ravens coach John Harbaugh, the two franchises always pulling for each other.
"I’m looking forward to seeing them play because I really enjoyed watching them this year," Hyde said. "I love, I told him, how tough they are, the toughness that the team had. They’re just really fun to watch.”
Reliever Danny Coulombe said he's also on the Ravens' side.
“One of my best friends is from Baltimore, so I kind of hopped on the Ravens bandwagon about four years ago," he said. "I’m a Cardinals fan, so we have nothing to cheer about.”