In a surprise decision that could set them up to spend big on pitching on Day 2, the Orioles selected Arkansas center fielder Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick of Wednesday's MLB Draft, using their top pick to infuse their system with the most highly touted left-handed college power
In a surprise decision that could set them up to spend big on pitching on Day 2, the Orioles selected Arkansas center fielder Heston Kjerstad with the second overall pick of Wednesday's MLB Draft, using their top pick to infuse their system with the most highly touted left-handed college power bat in this year’s class. The 10th-ranked prospect on MLB Pipeline’s Draft board, Kjerstad was considered the second-best power hitter available behind Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson, who went first overall to Detroit.
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“We felt like he was the best left-handed hitter in the country this year,” Orioles general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias said. “The thing we like about him the most besides the bat and the makeup and who he is and where he comes from, is that his power is truly foul pole to foul pole, all fields, all types of pitches. He’s a monster.”
The Orioles were seriously considering five candidates for the pick as recently as early this week, ultimately choosing Kjerstad over Vanderbilt infielder/outfielder Austin Martin, Texas A&M lefty Asa Lacy and New Mexico State infielder Nick Gonzales in what Elias called “a really excruciating decision.” They ultimately landed on what has become Elias’ signature demographic at the top of the Draft, a polished, premier college position player, rather than take riskier bets in the pitching and high schools ranks. The Orioles dipped into that pool again with their second pick of the night, selecting toolsy shortstop Jordan Westburg from Mississippi State 30th overall.
Elias downplayed the perception that passing on Martin and others could allow the Orioles to sign Kjerstad to an under slot deal, while acknowledging the pick does put them “in a position where we may be able to be a little more lenient with signability.” Baltimore has $13,894,300 in spending power this year to spend on six picks, the most of any team, with the No. 2 pick valued at $7,789,900. Kjerstad is expected to command significantly less than that, allowing the O’s to potentially use larger chunks of their bonus pool on pitching with their later picks.
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The scenario has drawn comparisons to when Elias and Mejdal went under slot to draft Carlos Correa first overall with the Astros in 2012, passing on several prospects who were expected to demand higher bonuses. Recalling that situation this week, Elias reiterated that the decision wasn’t driven solely by money -- the Astros considered Correa the best player available, and swooped in when the rest of the sport underestimated his market. Elias said Monday the goal was to “maximize” the club’s six picks in this truncated Draft, Wednesday night he called Kjerstad “our favorite bat” after Torkelson came off the board.
“When you’re picking that high you don’t want to feel like you’re not taking the guy you want who is the right guy for you and your Draft,” Elias said. “We could’ve gone in a few directions. ... I’ve been a part of a lot of tough decisions and this was right up there.”
In landing on Kjerstad, the Orioles hope they’ve found a future impact slugger in right field for years to come. A 36th-round pick of the Mariners as a Texas high schooler in 2017, Kjerstad set an Arkansas freshman home run record with 14 in his first spring in Fayetteville. He added 17 more homers as a sophomore, helping the Razorbacks to consecutive College World Series appearances. Kjerstad and the Razorbacks were national runner-ups in 2018, losing to Adley Rutschman’s Oregon State Beavers in the final. He would go on to hit .343 with 37 homers in 150 career games for the Razorbacks, also starring for Team USA.
He then soared up the Orioles’ Draft board after a white-hot start this spring. Kjerstad’s makeup impressed the Orioles after he met virtually with Elias on Zoom prior to the Draft, and was championed by area scout Ken Guthrie, who has known Kjerstad’s parents Jody and Dave for years. Kjerstad called his parents, who own and operate the North Texas institution Amarillo Water Still, his biggest influence. He also hinted at taking aim at the warehouse beyond the right-field wall at Camden Yards one day.
“I am going to be an impact player, for sure,” Kjerstad said. “I’ve seen videos of big leaguers hitting some home runs off it. Maybe I’ll be able to put a few off of it one day.”
Guthrie aside, Kjerstad already has Orioles ties. He played high school summer ball with Orioles No. 2 prospect Grayson Rodriguez and at Arkansas with No. 25 prospect Blaine Knight. Knight phoned Kjerstad Wednesday morning and again to congratulate him shortly after the pick was announced; Kjerstad also spoke with Rodriguez earlier in the day. Now, he, Rodriguez and 2019 top pick Rutschman will pair up as the jewels of a farm system that the Orioles see as vital to their long-term rebuilding plans, one that has made big strides since Elias and Mejdal took over in November 2018.
The Orioles had MLB’s 13th-ranked system this spring per MLB Pipeline, whose rankings were released shortly before baseball shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Kjerstad said he did “research” on how Elias helped turn the Astros around largely through the Draft early last decade. He said he would use the perception as an under slot pick as motivation.
“I’m just going to keep playing baseball how I always have, because when I went to Arkansas, there were a lot of people that thought I shouldn’t have been there,” Kjerstad said. “People can sit back and watch, and I’ll keep doing my thing and I’m pretty sure I’ll slowly change a lot of minds and they’ll realize why my name was called so early if they don’t understand now.”
The Draft continues on Thursday with Rounds 2-5. The MLB Network preview show begins at 4 p.m. ET, with live coverage on MLB Network and ESPN2 beginning at 5 p.m. ET. Go to MLB.com/Draft for complete coverage, including every pick on the Draft Tracker, coverage and analysis from MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis and Jonathan Mayo, the complete order of selection and more. And follow @MLBDraft and @MLBDraftTracker on Twitter.
Joe Trezza covers the Orioles for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JoeTrezz.