The recent news that young outfielder Heston Kjerstad is a full go at the Orioles’ instructional league camp in Florida was encouraging and a nice move forward for the player selected No. 2 overall from the University of Arkansas in the 2020 draft. He was the third-highest player ever taken by the organization.
But dealing with the effects of myocarditis has kept him off the field and created some uncertainty about his future. And while there are no guarantees going forward, the Orioles now hope we eventually see the true talent that led them to take Kjerstad with such a high pick in that draft.
In 16 games before the college baseball season shutdown in March 2020, he hit .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs and 20 RBIs. He batted .327/.400/.575 with 13 doubles, one triple, 17 home runs and 51 RBIs in 300 plate appearances as a sophomore, and .332/.419/.553 with 16 doubles, 14 home runs and 58 RBIs in 313 plate appearances as a freshman, when he was the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year in 2018.
“This is a middle-of-the-order bat profile for us,” O’s executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias said on the June night in 2020 when they drafted him. “We feel he’s the best lefty hitter in the country this year. And this is somebody that is going to hit for average and power and hit in the middle of our order for a long time while playing a quality right field defense.”
Kjerstad helped Arkansas to back-to-back College World Series appearances in 2018 and 2019. In the 2019 NCAA playoffs, he homered in the Regional round as well as the Super Regionals and in the College World Series.
On his draft day, Kjerstad was asked if he models his game after any big league players.
“I never tried to pick one player to play like, because I knew I brought different attributes or my strengths were different from that player,” Kjerstad said. “So I just took a little here and there from certain players, whether it was watching videos of Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Mike Trout. And just learning what all those guys do so great and what I can do to reach that level.
“The most influential people in my life were my parents. They influenced me my whole life. They gave me every opportunity, drove me to every tournament. My dad always threw me BP when I’d drag him out to the cage or to the field to hit. I’m pretty sure I owe him a new shoulder, for how much he threw.”
The Orioles’ outfield depth is pretty strong, and if Kjerstad eventually lives up to the high expectations for a No. 2 pick, the club may have an outfield surplus to trade from to acquire pitching or something else for the big league club.
In the majors the Orioles have Austin Hays, Cedric Mullins and Anthony Santander left to right. Also on the 40-man among outfielders are Yusniel Diaz, DJ Stewart, Jorge Mateo (who is listed at outfield on that roster), Ryan McKenna and Tyler Nevin (also listed in the outfield).
At the higher levels on the farm, they have more outfield talent in Kyle Stowers, Robert Neustrom, Zach Watson, Zach Jarrett, Shayne Fontana and Johnny Rizer, to name just a few. Further down the line in the outfield on the farm are 2021 top pick Colton Cowser, along with Hudson Haskin, Reed Trimble, Billy Cook, Donta’ Williams and John Rhodes.
It could turn out to be surplus city.
During a recent Zoom interview with O’s reporters from instructional league in Sarasota, Fla., Kjerstad said he feels great, like his old self, and has been swinging the bat well. He was about to face some pitchers in live BP situations, he said during that interview Friday.
Kjerstad noted that dealing with inflammation in his heart was never anything he expected to encounter at such a young age. But it was an obstacle to be overcome and he feels he has done exactly that.
“There was obviously a little doubt on how I’d come back. There was never ‘if’ I would come back. The doctors were reassuring: ‘This is short-term and we’re going to get you back on the field, it’s just a matter of when, but through this time let’s focus on your health and we’re going to get you healthy and after that you’ll focus on how you play baseball.’
“Anytime you go through injuries or setbacks, it’s natural as a human to wonder, ‘Am I going to be the same? How will I be?’ But honestly, I think I’m going to be better for it. Mentally, I went through a lot through all this and I think it’s going to give me a little bit of an edge in my game. I have a different perspective on everything now and more appreciation for playing the game and being healthy and just being able to do what I love every day.”
It should be exciting for Birdland that Kjerstad has reached this point. Hopefully a fully healthy 2022 season awaits. In the bigger O’s picture, they hope they can add another toolsy, talented outfielder to the depth chart.
What is your take on the O’s outfield depth throughout the organization?