When the Orioles made the final call on their No. 2 draft pick, selecting Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad on Wednesday night, it was a big moment for the player and his family. But it was also a big moment for the Orioles scouting staff.
Area scouts can follow players for years and years, file numerous reports, get to the know the player very well, meet his family, see hundreds of games over many seasons and then not even see that player drafted. Much less see one of their players taken with the No. 2 pick in the entire draft.
The area scout that has coverage of Oklahoma, Arkansas and north Texas for the Orioles is Ken Guthrie. His first season with the club was 2012 and he was hired by former O’s scouting director Gary Rajsich after doing some scouting for the New York Mets.
Guthrie had scouted Kjerstad for five or six years and has ties to his family going back longer than that. He’s had players signed in recent seasons, including pitcher Stefan Crichton and outfielders Jaylen Ferguson and Johnny Rizer, and he was the scout for pitcher Blaine Knight, taken in the third round two years ago from Arkansas.
But Wednesday was different. All those years led up to his player being taken No. 2 in the entire draft.
While executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias made the final call on this pick. Guthrie feels there was some consensus within the front office that Kjerstad should get strong consideration to go No. 2.
“Absolutely,” said Guthrie. “We met in the fall as a group and that was an opportunity for the entire scouting department to kind of gather some names and target some guys that would be candidates for our top pick. Of course, that was prior to COVID. But as we went into the spring season, Heston was definitely one of the guys that Brad (Ciolek, O’s supervisor of domestic scouting operations) made sure that there would be a lot of boots on the ground to get a lot of looks at Heston.
“For me, personally, I was able to evaluate Heston when he was in high school. He was a player that I had interest in and definitely had on our draft board out of high school. But from an organizational standpoint and for our scouting department, he was a candidate last fall as someone we were going to get a lot of looks on this spring.”
Guthrie first got to know this family when he coached Dexter Kjerstad on a summer ball team that also included former O’s pitcher Dylan Bundy.
“I first met the Kjerstad family coaching Heston’s older brother, when Heston was just a small kid running around the ballpark,” Guthrie said. “When Heston got to (college at) Arkansas I would always make a point to try and find them (his parents). They were kind of under the radar, they like to stay behind the scenes. A blue-collar family. But I’d always find his mom and dad and share some time with them. It’s just been a really cool opportunity to see this kid mature from a very young kid into his draft year in high school and then his draft year in college and get to know the family like I have.
“The Kjerstads are a really hard-working family. They have high morals and standards as parents. They’ve done a really nice job with all their children. For me as an area scout, when you can combine the talent and the tools he has with the makeup, it gives you confidence he’s going to be able to maximize those tools and reach his potential.”
That potential was on display during the shortened 2020 season when the 21-year-old lefty batter hit .448/.513/.791 in 16 games. Kjerstad was the 2018 Southeast Conference Freshman of the Year and helped Arkansas to the College World Series in 2018 and 2019.
It was short sample size for this season, but he cut his strikeout rate from 21.6 in 2019 to 11.5 with just nine strikeouts in 78 plate appearances. Better contact helps him with both his average and power.
“I think it’s important with every player that the strikeout-to-walk ratio stays in line,” said Guthrie. “You know Heston, like any amateur player, every year there is a maturation process. He tries to get better at some facet of his game every day. We can definitely look at things with a player happening today and that happened in the past, but the most important thing is what is this player going to do in the prime years of his career. I think with the collection of data and the background we have with Heston, that is what ultimately led Mike to make the pick. We know we’re getting a good player and we know he is not just what he is today, but is even going to be better.
“One thing that makes him special, is he is not just a power hitter. He has natural abilities to square up the ball routinely. Because he is so strong, he’s able to maximize that power. Personally, I think you’re going to see a successful hitter and a successful power hitter at the same time.”
Speaking of time, this scout spent a lot of it on this player. Heading into the 2019 draft, Guthrie spent a lot of time also scouting high school shortstop Bobby Witt, a candidate to go 1/1. But the O’s picked Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman as the No. 1 pick in that draft and Witt went second to Kansas City. This time, Guthrie saw his guy’s name get called by Baltimore.
“It’s definitely a lot of sweat equity for certain,” Guthrie said. “It’s years. We’ve been scouting Heston since his high school days. When you take a college player, you’ve got five or six years invested in a player like this. It is definitely rewarding. Sometimes you may like a player, but the draft doesn’t fall that way. This was my lucky year with everything to line up to get a kid and family like this to be a part of our organization.”
There was a neat moment and it is displayed in the tweet at the end of this entry. The Orioles let us in on the Zoom call with their scouts at the very moment when they officially selected Kjerstad. The other O’s scouts congratulated Guthrie and you could tell the feelings were heartfelt and sincere. You only have to talk with Guthrie for a short time to realize how much he loves being with the Orioles and how excited he is for the club’s future.
But on Wednesday, all the scouts realized that all his years and time scouting Kjerstad had paid off big.
“I certainly appreciated it (their congratulations) and it makes you feel good when your team accepts you like that,” he said. “Because that is the way I look at our staff - we are one big team. I don’t remember if it was caught on video, but the most important thing for me during that moment is everybody shared the same feeling that I did. This was a team effort. This was not just one scout getting an opportunity to sign one player. This was our whole scouting department from the area scout, to the cross checkers, to Brad, to Mike (Elias) and Sig (Mejdal). This was a team effort by the whole scouting department. The exciting part is to get to see what Orioles fans get to see in Heston, what we saw in our draft room. There are some exciting years ahead for this kid and Orioles fans.”
Also check out this video of my interview with Guthrie. In the O’s tweet, Guthrie is second from left in the top row. Pretty cool moment for him.