Though the Baltimore Orioles seem most likely to pick Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin with the second overall pick in the MLB Draft June 10, analysts have indicated in recent weeks that the team’s calculus might not be so simple. General manager Mike Elias could turn away from Martin and target under-slot value at pick two in order to maximize the money available for premier high school talent at picks 30 and/or 39.
Among that pool of players linked to Baltimore – which also includes New Mexico State’s Nick Gonzales and Florida high school prospect Zac Veen — is Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, whose explosive power could fit well with the Orioles’ prospects. And Kjerstad has expressed excitement about potentially joining a talented farm system in Baltimore.
“Coming up in an organization that’s rebuilding is really cool [and] to be part of a group that’s supposed to come in and flip a team around and do something special together,” Kjerstad said on Glenn Clark Radio June 9. “I think that gives it a little more of a college feel than most pro teams because you’re going to be part of a group of guys that come up together through the minor leagues and you’re able to work for something together and reach that goal together.”
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound outfielder was a career .345/.425/.587 hitter with 35 home runs and 124 RBIs in three seasons with the Razorbacks. Kjerstad was having his best year in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic cut the season short. He recorded a hit in every game this season — tying for second in the country with 30 knocks in just 16 games — and slashed .448/.513/.791 with six home runs and 20 RBIs.
Kjerstad raked with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team too, leading the club in batting average (.395), on-base percentage (.426), slugging percentage (.651) and total bases (28) last summer.
The Amarillo, Texas, native is the best pure left-handed power hitter in this class and ranks near the top overall along with the expected No. 1 pick, Arizona State’s Spencer Torkelson. As with most power hitters, though, Kjerstad’s biggest question mark is his penchant to strike out at high rates. He whiffed 125 times while only walking 53 times during his career at Arkansas.
But the 2018 SEC Freshman of the Year refocused his approach while with Team USA and saw his plate discipline drastically improve in the shortened 2020 season, striking out nine times while walking seven times.
“I was a little young and a little immature in my approach at the plate [my first two years], trying to create the long ball instead of just letting it happen,” Kjerstad said. “I really finally focused on it and sold out to it and created a plan to be able to achieve that goal [of better plate discipline] because I realized the importance of it and how much it would help my game going forward. … You’re going to strike out in the game being a power hitter, but also there’s that balance in there. You can’t be striking out too much.”
That change helped Kjerstad blossom into a nearly unstoppable force as a junior, and he was named the SEC’s best hitter at the end of the 2020 season by D1Baseball. But he had been building to this point for two years, regularly facing some of the top pitchers in the country while playing under an intense spotlight at one of the nation’s premier programs. That battle-tested mentality has given Kjerstad an advantage heading into his professional career.
“Almost every Friday night in the SEC, you’re going up against a first-rounder,” he said. “You’ve kind of been there and done that.”
And if he comes to Baltimore, Kjerstad will be under a similar spotlight as all eyes turn toward the rebuilding franchise’s deepening prospect pool. But Kjerstad already has a connection that could help ease such a transition.
Right-hander Blaine Knight, the Orioles’ third-round pick in 2018, pitched at Arkansas from 2016-2018 and overlapped with Kjerstad while the latter was a freshman. The two quickly became good friends and still regularly keep in touch, be it for talking baseball or dishing out fishing advice.
Kjerstad also has a history with last year’s top overall pick Adley Rutschman. Arkansas and Oregon State squared off in the 2018 College World Series championship series, with Rutschman’s Beavers coming out on top and the catcher being named the series’ Most Outstanding Player.
But that’s in the past, and Kjerstad is eagerly waiting to take the next step, which will be set in motion at the June 10 draft. Whether his future is in Baltimore remains to be seen, but nonetheless, Kjerstad is ready to move forward.
“Everything I’ve done up to this point is all I can do,” he said. “Whatever does happen will be great for me and I’ll be more than excited to start my professional career.”
For more from Kjerstad, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics