Orioles sign No. 2 overall pick Kjerstad

July 1st, 2020

Seeking to execute one of the more creative approaches at the top of this year’s Draft, the Orioles on Tuesday consummated the deal most necessary to turn that goal into reality by signing first-round pick Heston Kjerstad. Kjerstad, a consensus top 10 Draft prospect the O's surprised many by selecting No. 2 overall, agreed for $5.2 million, sources told MLB Pipeline’s Jim Callis -- two-thirds of his slot value of $7.8 million.

“I would like to thank everyone who helped me get to this moment,” Kjerstad said during a call on Wednesday morning, shouting out his parents, college coaches and others. “I am just excited to get my professional career started.”

That the Orioles felt they could sign Kjerstad at such a discount emboldened them to take bigger gambles later in the Draft. Of the $2.6 million they theoretically saved on Kjerstad, roughly $2.3 million was repurposed in above-slot agreements with fourth-rounder Coby Mayo ($1.75 million, roughly $1.2 million over slot) and fifth-rounder Carter Baumler ($1.5 million, roughly $1.1 million over slot), though both of those deals have not yet been signed.

“We feel like he is the headliner for what will be a very impactful Draft class overall,” general manager Mike Elias said on Wednesday. “… What we saw to lead us to select Heston was a rare combination of power and the ability to hit for average, and what we feel is a swing and [an] approach that will convert that production to the professional game.”

On Saturday, the Orioles inked Competitive Balance Round A pick shortstop Jordan Westburg and second-rounder outfielder Hudson Haskin to full-slot deals, leaving third-rounder Anthony Servideo as their only Draft selection yet to agree or sign. The O’s have roughly $1.2 million remaining in their MLB-high $13.9 million bonus pool. The slot value for Servideo’s 74th overall selection is $844,200.

Altogether, it’s reflective of a Draft strategy that has largely come together as planned, and it was predicated on acting aggressively to grab Kjerstad at No. 2. It also seems to make sense for both sides. Kjerstad was projected to go near the back of the Top 10; he received more than the slot value for the No. 8 overall pick and a bigger bonus than No. 9 pick Zac Veen ($5 million) and No. 10 Reid Detmers ($4.7 million) received from the Rockies and Angels, respectively.

“To be the second overall pick, that’s something you dream about your whole life,” said Kjerstad on Wednesday. “It was my time to move on from college baseball and start my journey into professional baseball and see where it takes me.”

The Orioles were able to maximize their Draft while also landing a player at the top with whom they've had a long relationship. The most highly touted left-handed college bat in this year’s Draft class, Kjerstad and his family have known O's area scout Ken Guthrie for years. That technically put Kjerstad on the Orioles' radar from the age of 11, long before he became a 36th-round pick of the Mariners out of his North Texas high school in 2017. Three years later, Guthrie would sign him as the No. 2 overall pick.

“We liked him as a bat coming out of high school,” Baltimore scouting supervisor Brad Ciolek said recently. “Guthrie knew the family extremely well. He told us he really liked the potential of the bat but didn’t know if the power was going to come. Flash forward, at Arkansas he added strength to his frame and ultimately that was very conducive to hitting more extra base hits and home runs.”

Soon, the power was plain to see. Kjerstad set the school’s freshman home run record with 14 homers during his first spring in Fayetteville, then went deep 17 more times as a sophomore, helping the Razorbacks to consecutive College World Series appearances. He was hitting .448 with six home runs and a 1.304 OPS this spring before the collegiate season shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, early production that shot him up the Orioles’ Draft board.

Their internal projection models predicted he would’ve been a finalist for the prestigious Golden Spikes Award had the season continued; after an impressive Zoom call with Elias, Kjerstad was drawing comparisons inside Orioles circles to the Marlins' 2019 top pick JJ Bleday, who rocketed up Draft boards behind a stellar junior season. The O’s were also encouraged by underlying metrics that showed Kjerstad showing less swing-and-miss in a small sample, and exhibiting strong exit velocity readings and contract rates on pitches in the strike zone. They view him as a right fielder and potential middle-of-the-order bat for years to come.

“We felt like he was the best left-handed hitter in the country this year,” Elias said on Draft night. “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.”