This is not how Heston Kjerstad drew it up when he dreamed about his professional career, but watching the Orioles’ No. 9 prospect in action with the Scottsdale Scorpions this fall, it’s easy to see he’s very much enjoying re-writing the script.
By now, most know the story. The Orioles took Kjerstad as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 Draft out of Arkansas. That was a weird enough time with the pandemic having shortened the college season and then there being no chance for new draftees to begin their Minor League career. But Kjerstad then missed the 2021 season and didn’t play until June of this year due to the lingering effects of myocarditis, a viral inflammation of the heart that surfaced shortly after the Draft.
“Through the time I had off away from the game, just trying to get back out there, there are those points where you're wondering when it was going to be, but once it finally came, it was good to be back,” Kjerstad said. “I have an appreciation for the game after being away from it. Everything's a lot more fun after you get sidelined for a little bit.”
He’s certainly having fun in Arizona. Heading into Week 3 of the AFL on Monday, Kjerstad led the circuit with 28 total bases while hitting .357/.386/.667 with four doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs. He shook off the rust during the regular season and got back to remembering what it meant to be a prospect pretty quickly.
“I think from the first day you step on the field, that stuff goes in the rearview and you’re just focused on trying to be the best player you can be,” said Kjerstad, who hit a combined .309/.394/.457 between Single-A Delmarva and High-A Aberdeen in 2022. “And figuring out how you can make yourself better to work towards the end goal: making it to the big leagues.”
Kjerstad showed very quickly upon his return to the field that the Carolina League was no match for him, posting a 1.201 OPS in 22 games, so the Orioles challenged him with the move up to the South Atlantic League. That was more of a struggle, with a .674 OPS in 43 games, and he knows he’ll have to learn to adapt in order to keep moving up.
“Each level is a little bit of a change,” said Kjerstad, who is focusing on his plate discipline and driving the ball to all fields during his time with Scottsdale. “Everybody’s a little bit better in some way, whether it’s better stuff from the pitchers or better command. But that’s the name of the game, you always have to be making adjustments and making sure you’re staying on top of your game, because you’ll get exposed if you’re not making changes and adjustments to make yourself better.”
Orioles hitters in the Fall League:
Cesar Prieto, INF (No. 18): A former standout in Cuba, Prieto signed with the Orioles in January 2022 after he had left the Cuban National Team in May 2021. The 23-year-old infielder hit well with High-A Aberdeen but had far less impact when he moved to Double-A, and he’s working to iron things out so he can have more success with a return to the upper levels next season.
Reed Trimble, OF: The Orioles took Trimble in the second round of the 2021 Draft after a big season as a second-year freshman at Southern Miss. He has an intriguing power-speed combination but hasn’t really gotten to show it yet as offseason shoulder surgery kept him out of action this past season until July, so he’s trying to make up for lost at-bats with Scottsdale.
Orioles pitchers in the Fall League:
Noah Denoyer, RHP: Signed as a nondrafted free agent in the summer of 2019, Denoyer reached Double-A and pitched well there in 2022, primarily out of the bullpen. He’s made two starts in the AFL and shown off a heavy fastball, a curve, a slider and a spin-killing splitter. He’s working on using his entire pitch mix early on in outings.
Nolan Hoffman, RHP: Originally a fifth-round pick in 2018 by the Seattle Mariners, Hoffman was taken by the Orioles in the Minor League phase of the 2021 Rule 5 Draft. He spent most of the year in Double-A, but missed two months on the injured list. A submariner, he throws a sinking fastball and a slider, while continuing to work on mixing in a rising cutter and a changeup to left-handed hitters.
Easton Lucas, LHP: Initially drafted by the Marlins in 2019, Lucas was sent to the Orioles that December in return for Jonathan Villar. He’s pitched entirely as a reliever with the O’s, and so far in the AFL, but some scouts think he has back-end starter traits. The 6-foot-4 lefty has clean and sound mechanics and can throw an easy 95 mph that sneaks up on hitters. He’s mostly fastball-slider, but he has a changeup and has been working on a curve in Arizona.
Nick Richmond, RHP: The Orioles signed Richmond as a Minor League free agent this past May after the Tigers released him last December, and he spent most of his time pitching out of Aberdeen’s bullpen. He’s sinker-focused, coming from a lower three-quarters slot, but he also likes his changeup while working on a cutter and slider.