Orioles general manager Mike Elias is overhauling the franchise with an innovative approach to running operations.
This strategy carried over to the 2020 MLB Draft.
In a surprise move, the Orioles selected Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the No. 2 overall pick over Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin. The left-handed power has a swing built perfectly for Camden Yards, but he was not slotted to be taken that high — Kjerstad was ranked as the No. 10 overall draft prospect by MLB.com and the No. 13 prospect by Baseball America.
There is speculation the Orioles chose Kjerstad because he would take an under-slot deal, allowing the club to spend more money on other selections. The Orioles later selected Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg with the 30th overall pick.
Elias downplayed the under-slot scenario as the reason for selecting Kjerstad, who slashed .448/.513/.791 with five doubles, six home runs and 20 RBIs over 16 games this spring before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down all sports across the world.
“We haven’t signed him yet, so it’s hard to say that it’s factored in at all,” Elias said. “When you’re picking that high, you don’t want to feel like you’re not taking the guy that you want, that is the right guy for you in your draft. We could have gone in a few directions.
“We like all those players up there. That’s how it is when you’re picking high. You’re comparing good options and you saw the teams behind us went in directions that they weren’t necessarily projected to go in either. That’s just how it happens.”
Kjerstad has a history of power and production. As a freshman for the Razorbacks, he slashed 332/.419/.553 with 16 doubles, 14 home runs and 58 RBIs in 313 plate appearances. The following year, Kjerstad slashed .327/.400/.575 with 13 doubles, one triple, 17 home runs and 51 RBIs in 300 plate appearances. He was on pace to be even better this year before the season was cut short.
Once the Detroit Tigers selected Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson with the No. 1 overall pick, that opened the door for Kjerstad to join the Orioles.
“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, the 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.”
While the selection of Kjerstad was surprising, several analysts see him playing at Camden Yards in the near future.
“Kjerstad is the best left-handed power hitter in this Draft, but it is a surprise to see him go here, as we had him ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the Draft,” wrote Jim Callis of MLB.com. “I thought that the Orioles would go with Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin, but Kjerstad’s swing is built for Camden Yards, and he should get there very quickly.”
Westburg was ranked as the No. 33 draft prospect by Baseball America and 37th by MLB Pipeline. He slashed .317/.432/.517 with six doubles and two home runs in 74 plate appearances as a junior in 2020. He led the Bulldogs in doubles and slugging percentage and was tied for the team lead in runs, home runs, and total bases (31). The previous year, Westburg hit .294/.402/.457 with 21 doubles, two triples, six home runs and 61 RBIs in 321 plate appearances.
“A high performing but also toolsy college shortstop from Mississippi State,” Elias said. “You look at the history of the draft and middle infielders, especially shortstops from the SEC conference, from the big conference schools, every round they’re the smartest picks you can make when you get a chance and you should really grab as many as you can.
“He’s got above-average speed, he can throw. So there’s a lot to like and we think he can stay at shortstop. We think he’s someone who could have gone a couple picks earlier in the first round had things shaken out a different way.”
Some draft analysts were not enamored with this pick, especially after taking Kjerstad with the second overall selection. Westburg will need some time to work on his swing before he’s ready for major-league pitching, according to Keith Law of The Athletic.
“If that pick was to save money, rather than a straight preference for Kjerstad, the Orioles didn’t take advantage of it at No. 30, the first selection of the competitive balance A round, at which they took Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg, a very good athlete who also strikes out too much and has to work on pitch recognition as well as reducing his leak at the plate,” Law wrote.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics