Ben McDonald On Orioles’ Decision To Take Heston Kjerstad, Pass On Austin Martin

Even though Vanderbilt’s Austin Martin was the player mostly commonly linked to the Orioles at No. 2 overall ahead of the 2020 MLB Draft, Orioles and SEC Network broadcaster Ben McDonald suspected Arkansas right fielder Heston Kjerstad was an option for the Orioles at No. 2 overall as well.

Turns out that McDonald was onto something — but he’s not patting himself on the back too much about the foresight he showed in the days leading up to the draft.

“You know about the blind dog kind of deal, every now and again you get one right,” McDonald said on Glenn Clark Radio June 11.

Kjerstad profiles as a classic corner outfielder thanks to his physicality (he’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds) and power (he hit 35 home runs at the college level). Martin, the consensus No. 2 talent in the draft after Arizona State first baseman Spencer Torkelson, played mostly third base as a sophomore in 2019 and mostly center field in 2020, though his eventual defensive home is unclear. The Toronto Blue Jays took Martin No. 5 overall.

McDonald said the lack of certainty regarding Martin’s position may have contributed to the Vanderbilt star’s mini-slide.

“I think at the end of the day, while Austin Martin is a heck of talent, he’s a really good athlete, we can’t say what position he projects out at,” McDonald said. “To me, he didn’t show me the arm strength to play the left side of the infield at the big-league level. That was the knock on Austin Martin, so then you start talking about, ‘Well, we might have to move him to second base. Well, we might have to move him to the outfield.’

“But then if you move him to the outfield you know he can really run, but if the arm is an issue at third base, you know dang well the arm is an issue in the outfield too because you like for your guys to be able to throw from the outfield. … I’m not sold that Austin Martin, while I love the kid, is a generational type player.”

Kjerstad hit .345/.425/.587 for the Razorbacks from 2018-2020 and .448/.513/.791 during a coronavirus-shorted junior season. He also hit .395/.426/.651 in 14 games for USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team last summer. Kjerstad’s underlying numbers – like bat speed, exit velocity and launch angle – also suggest he was one of the top hitters in the draft.

McDonald did allow that Kjerstad’s defense in right field needs some work, but he loves the bat regardless.

“I love [Kjerstad’s] physicality. To me he’s the best left-handed bat in this draft, especially from a college standpoint,” McDonald said. “He hits for average, he hits for power. Yes, there’s some swing and miss there, there’s no doubt about that. But the swing and miss got better the little bit we saw him this year, his junior year. And I loved Austin Martin too because of the athleticism, but Heston Kjerstad has to me a much more powerful bat. He’s going to hit home runs at the big-league level more so than an Austin Martin would.”

Regardless of whether the Orioles took Martin or Kjerstad, McDonald was going to love the track record of hitting that Baltimore’s pick brought to the organization. McDonald, who pitched at LSU from 1987-1989, got a firsthand look at how those two performed in the highly competitive SEC as a color commentator for SEC Network.

Torkelson was generally regarded as the no-doubt No. 1 pick for much of the spring thanks to his production at Arizona State (54 homers from 2018-2020). But McDonald says not to sleep on Kjerstad’s production, either.

“Heston Kjerstad hit 13 home runs in the SEC his freshman year, hit 17 last year and he was on pace to hit 25 home runs in the toughest conference in all of college baseball,” McDonald said. “And I’m not taking anything away from Arizona State, the Pac-12, the Big Ten and all those conferences, but this is the best conference in all of baseball and Kjerstad put up monster numbers every year in the SEC, and that’s another reason why I really like him.”

Baltimore drafted another productive position player from the SEC with its second pick of the draft. The Orioles popped Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg at No. 30 overall. Westburg was a career .285/.385/.446 hitter with the Bulldogs from 2018-2020. He was off to a big start as a junior before the pandemic cut his season short (.317/.432/.517) and performed well in the wood bat Cape Cod League last summer. Though he had some swing and miss in his game at Mississippi State, he hits the ball hard.

The 6-foot-3, 203-pound Westburg was described by McDonald as a terrific athlete with an above-average arm and above-average speed. McDonald thinks Westburg will settle in at shortstop or third base in pro ball despite some defensive issues with the Bulldogs (22 errors in three years).

“When you look at him from a defensive standpoint and when it all comes together for him — and I really think it will – he’s going to be a kid in my opinion that could be one of the best athletes in this draft and one of the most talented players in this draft,” McDonald said. “The question mark with him is how fast does it come together? Because the ball comes off the bat better than anybody when he does square it up.”

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

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Arkansas Athletics

Luke Jackson

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