Ben McDonald On Why Arkansas OF Heston Kjerstad Is Possible Sleeper Pick For Orioles

Orioles and SEC Network broadcaster Ben McDonald believes Baltimore will pick Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin with the No. 2 overall pick in the MLB Draft June 10, but he has another SEC position player in mind who he thinks would fit well, too.

Arkansas right fielder Heston Kjerstad, a consensus top-10 pick, hit .345/.425/.587 with the Razorbacks from 2018-2020. The left-handed batter hit .448/.513/.791 during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Kjerstad hit .395/.426/.651 in 14 games for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer.

Kjerstad is a “big, powerful right fielder that can really throw and he can really hit and he can hit for power, one of the best hitters in the country,” McDonald said on Glenn Clark Radio June 3. “I think he’s a little bit of a sleeper in all this. I still think the Orioles are going to take Martin because of his athleticism, but I wouldn’t be shocked, if they decide to go position player, if they did take a Heston Kjerstad because he’s a big-time bat as well.

“But his defense – and every one of these players has something they’ve really, really got to work on – is not nearly as good in the outfield as you’d like to see a big-league outfielder be.”

As a college baseball analyst for SEC Network, McDonald has gotten looks at many of the college players the Orioles are surely scouring over before making the No. 2 pick, including likely top-10 picks Martin, Kjerstad, Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy and Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock.

McDonald, 52, pitched at LSU from 1987-1989 and was picked No. 1 overall by the Orioles in 1989. He was the only top overall pick in club history until catcher Adley Rutschman was taken No. 1 out of Oregon State last year. Whoever Baltimore picks at No. 2 this year will join Rutschman and others in the effort to turn around a franchise that has lost 100-plus games at the big-league level the past two years.

Martin, who hit .368/.474/.532 at Vanderbilt from 2018-2020, is the player most commonly linked to the Orioles in mock drafts. McDonald likes Martin’s athleticism, bat, baseball IQ, glove, motor and knack for producing when it matters most, like when he helped the Commodores win the College World Series last June. He just wonders about his future position; Martin played mostly third base as a sophomore and mostly center field as a senior.

“When you take somebody No. 2 overall, you expect him to have a position,” McDonald said. “You’d say, ‘This is my center fielder of the future. This is my shortstop, this is my catcher of the future.’ But with Austin Martin, the one drawback is the arm strength, right? He hasn’t shown me the arm strength to play the left side of the infield at the big-league level. Now, will it develop a little bit more? That’s a possibility, but I think more likely he checks out as a second baseman or somewhere in the outfield because he can really run.”

If Martin’s eventual defensive home is the outfield, what will he look like out there? And will his ability to run translate to the base paths? (He stole 43 bases in three years at Vanderbilt.)

“I would compare him a lot to an Austin Hays. I think he runs like that. He can really go,” McDonald said. “He has a high baseball IQ. We all know this, but not only do you have to be fast, but you’ve got to be a good base runner to steal bases. I think Austin Martin can do those kinds of things.”

Should the Orioles pass on Martin, the consensus No. 2 talent, and go a different direction, the reason may be tied to how they’d like to allocate their pool money. Baltimore has about $13.9 million to spend on its six picks in the five-round draft, shortened due to the coronavirus pandemic. Slot value for the No. 2 overall pick is about $7.8 million.

The Orioles could save money with the No. 2 pick and use that money on high schoolers with strong college commitments at picks 30 and 39. Kjerstad would conceivably be a candidate for an under-slot deal at No. 2 if Baltimore went that route. Regardless, the Orioles have to nail this draft and don’t have much margin for error with only six picks.

“If you’re the Yankees or the Red Sox, it’s not that big of a deal to you but it is to the Orioles because it hurts them in some ways,” McDonald said of the five-round draft. “When you draft a guy now, you’ve got to know you can sign him. You can’t miss. Mike Elias is under a lot of pressure, obviously, because all of his picks really matter. It’s going to be under the microscope and people are really going to look at it and grade it down the road.”

For more from McDonald, listen to the full interview here:

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics

Luke Jackson

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