Heston Kjerstad was hardly on Mike Elias’ radar in the winter. In fact, Elias and the Orioles didn’t have an in-person meeting scheduled with the slugger from Arkansas.
Then, Kjerstad started the 2020 regular season with a bang and the Orioles took more and more interest in him.
“This (Kjerstad) is a middle-of-the-order bat profile for us and we felt he was the best left-handed hitter in the country this year,” Elias said on a conference call with reporters. “This is somebody who’s going to hit for power and average and hit in the middle of our order for a long time while playing a quality right field defense.”
The pick shook up draft boards just two selections into the night as Austin Martin, the widely-projected second overall pick in most mock drafts, went by the wayside as Kjerstad’s college stats were too much for the Orioles to pass up.
He slashed a career .343/.421/.590 with 37 career home runs as a Razorback and played mostly in right field. He slugged 37 home runs in his career, which spanned 150 games.
Kjerstad, 21, slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs, 19 runs, and 20 RBI in 16 games during his shortened junior season. He led the Razorbacks in batting average, hits, home runs, RBI, total bases (53), on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
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Kjerstad said the Orioles had remained interested throughout the process, though he wasn’t trying to get his hopes up. When he got the call from the Orioles, he couldn’t say yes quick enough.
“I wasn’t really trying to get my hopes up for any pick,” Kjerstad said. “I was just waiting for the phone to ring and see what happened and sure enough, after the Detroit Tigers turned in their pick, phone rang and it’s the Orioles and they wanted to pick me with their second pick. And, man, I couldn’t say yes quick enough to that.”
But was the pick purely an under-slot selection, or was it a chess move by Elias and the rest of the front office? If you ask them, it’s the latter.
One of the things Elias loved about the left-handed hitter was Kjerstad’s power from foul pole-to-foul pole, as he wasn’t specifically a pull hitter. His spray chart collegiately backs up that fact.
“I’m going to be an impact player for sure,” Kjerstad said. “I bring a left-handed bat in the lineup that has power to all parts of the field. Left, right, center, and I also bring a good glove to the outfield. I’ll be a solid defender.”
The background noise to Kjerstad’s selection, however, was how the Orioles passed on Martin — who went fifth to the Blue Jays — to select Kjerstad. Many had projected Martin to the Orioles for months, considering his ability to hit to contact and his versatility in the field.
Now, Kjerstad said he has something to prove.
“I’m just going to keep playing baseball like I always have,” Kjerstad said. “When I went to Arkansas, there were a lot of people who thought I shouldn’t have been there. When I was a freshman, they thought I shouldn’t have started as a freshman. And I proved them wrong. People can sit back and watch, and I’ll keep doing my thing. I’m pretty sure I’ll slowly change a lot of minds.”
When he’ll get his chance to start changing minds, however, remains to be seen. The coronavirus pandemic has halted all minor and major league play, meaning Kjerstad is now stuck in limbo as to his immediate professional future.
Whenever he gets the chance, though, he’s hopeful fans will be able to see the power Elias mentioned. And when asked about the warehouse in right field at Camden Yards, Kjerstad just smiled.
“Maybe I’ll be able to put a few off it one day,” he said.
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