Orioles minor leaguers are breaking spring training camp today and heading north, hitting the road and catching flights to join their respective affiliates for the resumption of a season that never got off the ground in 2020.
Teams will announce their rosters on Tuesday as an attachment to opening day.
Heston Kjerstad is ahead of them, but about to spin in the other direction, leaving the alternate training site in Bowie and resuming his workouts in Sarasota, Fla.
The second-overall selection in last year’s draft isn’t close to reaching affiliate report status, and there’s no incentive for organization or player to accelerate the process.
A week has passed since Kjerstad received medical clearance and arrived at Prince George’s Stadium. He didn’t get on the field in 2020 after a diagnosis of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle that’s usually caused by a viral infection.
The idea was scrapped to have him join other players in spring training. The Orioles sent him directly to Bowie, but implemented the delay in order to make certain that he was fine physically.
Games were arranged against players from the Nationals’ alternate site, but Kjerstad didn’t participate. He must go through incremental steps that are lengthened with COVID-19 protocols.
There’s no method available to evaluate his tools and make broad projections until he’s able to start hitting and taking fly balls at an acceptable level of intensity. Doing so would be speculative and largely useless.
“You’ve got to keep in mind that he’s been out of baseball activity for a while, so it’s going to be a long, slow, cautious buildup with him,” said director of player development Matt Blood, who watched a camp game yesterday in Sarasota and is flying back today.
“Initially, it’s been intaking him, getting a feel for where he is physically, light workouts, really not much baseball activity at this point, as we’re trying to get him back to feeling good and conditioned. We’re not going to rush him. We’re going to be patient, we’re going to do what’s best for him to get back to where he feels normal and able to do what he can do.”
The Orioles are waiting to learn how Kjerstad reacts to batting practice, live pitching and outfield drills. He hasn’t played since the college baseball season was halted in March 2020. The Orioles selected him three months later, after he hit .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs and 20 RBIs in 78 plate appearances at the University of Arkansas, and gave him a $5.2 million signing bonus.
“It’s going to be slow,” Blood said. “We will not be rushing this situation.”
Questioning where Kjerstad is assigned later in the summer also is premature. The uncertainty revolves around whether his debut is pushed back to 2022 rather than happening in the former Gulf Coast League or at Single-A Delmarva or Aberdeen.
“I think it’s too early to say,” Blood said. “You want all of your players to be able to play as much as possible, but I think it’s too early to know when and where.”
Or whether Kjerstad can move quickly through the system, the initial claims made following his selection. As if right field at Camden Yards was waiting for him.
Everyone is waiting.
“It’s just impossible to know anything right now,” Blood said. “We’ve literally never seen him on a field in an Orioles uniform. I think right now it’s just very much about getting him back to fully healthy and getting him back to fully conditioned, and then after that we’ll start to assess everything else.”
The Orioles aren’t receiving any pushback from Kjerstad. He’s remained patient and positive, according to Blood. No visible signs of frustration or angst.
“He’s handled this better than anyone could ever handle it,” Blood said. “He’s a phenomenal kid. That’s the last of the concerns. He’s handled it extremely well.”