Orioles still deciding next step for Kjerstad after signing him

Now that the Orioles have signed outfielder Heston Kjerstad, the second overall selection in the First-Year Player Draft, they must decide what to do with him.

It’s a little more complicated than in past summers.

The minor league season has been canceled, with the official announcement coming yesterday afternoon. The hammer was going to fall. The only question was how long it would take for everyone to hear it.

The Orioles can’t assign Kjerstad to one of their lower affiliates. They also can’t allow him to stay idle and delay exposing him to professional baseball.

“It’s a question that applies to every minor league baseball player in the world right now and it’s not just him,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said earlier today in a Zoom conference call with the media. “We’re already in the process of getting him engaged with our player development department and our strength and conditioning department and our entire support system that we’re extending across the entire organization right now for the players that are kind of on their own to train while they’re at home.

“We’ll see how the year unfolds. We barely began that process with him and I think there’s a lot to work through there. We’re doing the best we can with these circumstances.”

Kjerstad, who batted .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs, 20 RBIs and 19 runs scored in 16 games as a junior, is waiting for the Orioles to share their ideas with him. He’s basically been in a holding pattern since baseball shut down in March.

“We’re super early in the process,” he said. “We just finally got signed and they’re planning on getting in touch with me with the hitting coach and stuff like that, and they’ll develop a plan with all of us minor leaguers as a group on what we’ll do going forward and how we can start preparing for this offseason and getting ready for the next minor league season, too.”

One option is to send Kjerstad to the alternate camp site, which will hold the 16 players who weren’t invited to Camden Yards. But there’s a gamble associated with players who aren’t on the 40-man roster.

“That’s something that we’re assessing and deciding as we go with any candidate for that pool,” Elias said. “Our analysis of the rules and the season and the way it’s structured is that bringing up young minor leaguers for player development purposes has some risks in terms of your roster flexibility and potentially if you have to tap into the depth on your roster, you’re going to need those spots potentially during the year. Players that are not on the 40-man roster, you can’t get them out of that pool if you do ever need to without releasing them effectively and obviously nobody wants to do that.

“So we’re taking those decisions pretty slowly and carefully and that’s why we’ve only announced 44 players so far. We’ll just see how it all unfolds.”

The goal is to prevent Kjerstad and other prospects from experiencing a dramatic setback with no season. To soften the blow.

Thumbnail image for Kjerstad Running Arkansas Sidebar.jpg“It’s definitely tough not being able to go out and play games because me, personally, I think that’s the best way to improve as a player is to be playing every day and facing high-level competition,” Kjerstad said. “It’s definitely something you’re going to have to work with. Every minor leaguer is struggling with the same thing. Nobody’s going to face competition, so you need to be a little creative in your training and also making sure maybe you’re getting live at-bats wherever you’re at with a group of guys or doing a lot of machine work to simulate real at-bats and things like that. Just stay prepared.

“You’ve always got to keep improving.”

The Orioles gave Kjerstad a $5.2 million bonus, per a source, and envision him playing right field and settling into a run-producing spot in their order.

“We feel that he is the headliner in what’s going to be a very impactful draft class overall and very excited in particular about Heston’s role in our organization’s future and what we feel is ultimately going to be his place in the middle of our lineup one day,” Elias said.

“He is an extremely decorated and productive college player that has performed very highly at the highest levels of amateur baseball, both in the Southeastern Conference and with the Team USA program. And what we saw that led us to select Heston with this pick was a rare combination of power and the ability to hit for average and what we feel is a swing and an approach that will convert that production to the professional game and ultimately the major leagues.

“He’s also a good athlete and a good defender in right field. Throws well. Some of our scouts think he’s got an above-average to plus arm. It’s a really strong profile for a corner outfielder in today’s game. Ultimately, it’s a player that we’re just very excited about on a number of levels, but particularly the fact that we feel that he’s got the potential to be a middle-of-the-order left-handed bat is something that’s hard to find and we were thrilled to select him and bring him into our organization, even in this strange and uncertain time where we’re signing players and not being able to send him to play in the minor leagues. We’re excited to acclimate him to our organization and get him going.”

Elias has referred to Kjerstad as the best left-handed hitter in the country, which makes the outfielder’s transformation even more impressive.

Kjerstad was a switch-hitter in high school, saying it was “something to do,” and revealed today that he’s a natural from the right side.

“I do everything else right-handed, so it was kind of pretty easy,” he said. “My senior year of high school, I started realizing I was able to hit left-handed pitching real well and my left-handed swing was more advanced, so it was time to just focus on one side and just make one side as good as it could be.”

Kjerstad wasn’t a baseball facility rat as a kid. Tutelage and repetitions were done in a simpler, more traditional form and the swing evolved.

“It’s a natural developed swing,” he said. “I didn’t grow up going to lessons or anything like that. It was just me and my dad. We’d go up to the cage practically almost every day and he’d just throw me BP and I would just hit and try to hit the ball as hard and as far as I can to all parts of the field.

“That’s what worked for me. I take all the credit for it because I was the one who mastered it. It’s kind of like playing the guitar. It’s my form of art and you kind of have your own unique rhythm or whatever with it.”

Scout Ken Guthrie has been tracking Kjerstad for many years and became friendly with the family. He had the honor of signing the second overall pick, which is rare and sacred territory in baseball.

“It’s pretty nerve-racking, kind of like this interview,” Guthrie said. “Area scouts are not in the limelight. But first and foremost, this is not just my pick or my player. I’m elated to be associated with Heston, but this is from Mike, Sig (Mejdal), Brad (Ciolek), to our Midwest cross-checker in Jim Richardson, Hank Hendrik (Herz), our analytics department and our entire amateur scouting staff. It’s a group effort to get a player like this and certainly we’re all excited.

“As far as what attracted me to Heston, initially was just his ability and his knack for squaring up the baseball routinely. He can do damage with pitcher’s pitches, he shows power to all fields, he has natural hitter’s instincts, he profiles well in right field, and the best part is he’ll maximize his potential and his tools with his hard work and ethic and his genuine love for the game.”

The Orioles were confident that they’d be able to sign Kjerstad. He didn’t sweat the process and never considered a return to Arkansas.

“No way,” he said. “Once you get drafted, that’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and to be the second overall pick, that’s something you dream about your whole life. It was my time to move on from college baseball and start my journey into pro baseball and see where it takes me.

“Definitely pumped to be part of the Orioles organization and starting with Mike Elias all the way down to everyone involved, even the players, I think it’s a great organization. Honestly, it’s a great fit for me with the people and everything. They take care of everyone well.

“They definitely have a lot of talent coming up in their minor league system, and I think it’s going to be a great place for me to be able to develop and reach my full potential.”

Players began reporting to Camden Yards today to undergo testing for COVID-19 prior to Friday’s first workout. The Orioles have been able to avoid a health crisis, but wonder if their luck will continue.

“Doing OK so far from everything that has come my way,” Elias said. “It’s going to be an ongoing process, but we’re starting the season. We’re getting going here and we’re going to have a workout in a couple days, on the third.”

Elias has seen drafts of the regular season schedule, which may not become public until next week.

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