As Heston Kjerstad sat down with his family and friends June 10 to watch the MLB Draft, the outfielder from Arkansas did not know where he would end up. A consensus top-10 prospect, Kjerstad had garnered interest from several teams but hadn’t received any definitive news about his final landing spot.
It didn’t take long for him to find a new home. Just after the Detroit Tigers took Spencer Torkelson first overall as expected, Kjerstad got a call. His adviser relayed the news: Kjerstad was now a member of the Baltimore Orioles.
“That was absolutely crazy and something I’ll never forget,” Kjerstad said on Glenn Clark Radio June 11. “It was definitely surreal. I had barely sat down on the couch and the next thing you know my name was getting called. That’s something I’ve always dreamed about since I was a kid, getting my name called as early as possible.”
Kjerstad had only recently been on the radar as the Orioles’ potential pick at No. 2. Baltimore had long been linked to Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin with the second pick, but draft analysts noted the possibility that general manager Mike Elias would go under-slot with that selection in order to save money for prime high school talent later in the draft.
For Kjerstad himself, he knew there was a chance he would wind up in Baltimore, as his adviser had spoken with Elias the day before the draft. And sure enough, the Orioles chose the 6-foot-3, 205-pound slugger.
Kjerstad joins a deepening Baltimore farm system and could thrive at hitter-friendly Camden Yards with his explosive bat. He was a career .345/.425/.587 hitter with 35 home runs and 124 RBIs in three seasons with the Razorbacks and was having his best year in Fayetteville, Ark., in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic cut the season short.
However, like most power hitters, Kjerstad’s biggest concern is his high strikeout rate. He whiffed 125 times while walking just 53 times during his career at Arkansas. Those numbers raised a few eyebrows and left some on social media confused as to why the Orioles chose Kjerstad rather than the more well-rounded Martin. The Commodores’ utility player was eventually selected fifth overall by the Toronto Blue Jays.
But those concerns aren’t fazing Kjerstad, who has been working to bring his strikeout numbers down and said he hopes to win over his doubters.
“Any time you reach a new level, there’s a lot of people that believe in you, they want to see you do your thing. And there’s always the people that don’t think you’re that good or you’re that capable,” Kjerstad said. “But give me some time, and if those people tune in and watch and see what I’m all about, they’ll come around eventually.”
Playing under such a spotlight at the professional level will be a transition, but it may be a little easier for Kjerstad in Baltimore. He already has familiarity with a couple of the club’s other prospects: Blaine Knight and Grayson Rodriguez. He overlapped with Knight — a 2018 third-round pick — at Arkansas for one season, while Kjerstad played summer ball in high school with Rodriguez, the team’s first round selection in 2018. Kjerstad has stayed in touch with both and received congratulatory texts from them after he was drafted.
The Amarillo, Texas, native also has a good relationship with the Orioles’ second pick of the draft. Kjerstad’s Razorbacks routinely squared off with shortstop Jordan Westburg’s Mississippi State Bulldogs in SEC play, and the two were both invited to the U.S. Collegiate National Team trials in 2019. Westburg hit .285/.385/.446 with 10 home runs and 102 RBIs in three seasons in Starkville, Miss.
“We knew each other pretty well, and he’s a great dude and a good infielder with a good bat,” Kjerstad said of Westburg.
Though Kjerstad is excited to start his professional career with Baltimore, there are question marks in the near future. The pandemic has shuttered both the minor- and major-league seasons for the time being, and teams are still not allowed to host organized workouts.
It’s a strange in-between time for Kjerstad, as the start of his career could be delayed and he could be confined to working out at his home for the rest of this year. But that isn’t slowing him down, and the outfielder is ready for whatever comes next once he signs.
“It’s definitely kind of weird because I don’t know when I’ll be sent out,” Kjerstad said. “Whatever it is, even if I just get sent out to the spring training facility and I’m just working out, that’ll be an improvement from working out in my garage. … Whenever it is, I hope we start playing games sooner than later, I think everybody will be amped to get that rolling again.”
For more from Kjerstad, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics