It’s not exactly the way a player wants to get called up to make his Major League debut, but given that not long ago, Heston Kjerstad’s future in baseball seemed very much in doubt, he’ll take it.
Kjerstad was summoned on Thursday to provide an extra bat while the Orioles evaluate the severity of Ryan Mountcastle’s left shoulder injury. It remains to be seen how long the No. 24 overall prospect will be up for and what his role will be, but one thing is certain: Baltimore is getting one of the better left-handed hitting prospects in the game. As one Major League evaluator put it, “He mashes.”
He’s always mashed, dating back to the start of his college career at Arkansas. In the staring lineup right from the jump, Kjerstad hit .330 with 31 homers combined in his freshman and sophomore years. He may have been a bit of a surprise No. 2 overall pick in the pandemic-shortened 2020 Draft, one who signed for more than $2.5 million under slot (a deal that allowed them to also take fellow masher Coby Mayo), but had there been a full college season that spring, he may have hit his way into discussions near the top of the Draft. He was hitting .448/.513/.791 in 16 games at the time of the shutdown, after all.
Then the Orioles and Kjerstad had to wait, and wait some more, to see how those skills would profile at the next level. There was no baseball in 2020 and then he missed all of 2021 following a diagnosis of myocarditis, a viral inflammation of the heart, and its lingering effects. No one knew exactly when, or if, he’d be able to return to competitive play, or what it all would look like should he be able to resume.
He started to answer those questions with his first professional action in June of 2022. The Orioles started him slowly, in Single-A Delmarva, where he quickly proved too good for the level, earning a bump up to High-A Aberdeen after posting a 1.201 OPS in 22 games. He scuffled a bit in the South Atlantic League (.674 OPS) as he continued to get his legs under him, but he more than made up for it in the Arizona Fall League last year. The outfielder slashed .357/.385/.622 and took home MVP honors.
Perhaps more importantly, it served as an outstanding springboard to the upper levels of the O’s system. Between Double-A and Triple-A, the 24-year-old had a .303/.376/.528 line with 132 wRC+ and 58 extra-base hits at the time of his callup. The power profile that he had with the Razorbacks? It’s legit.
And he’s matured as a hitter. He was seen as a definite power-over-hit type as he left the amateur ranks, one with complicated swing mechanics and an aggressive approach that pointed to a future of high swing-and-miss numbers. He’s had stretches like that, for sure -- he struck out 28.8 percent of the time in Aberdeen and even in the AFL he was right around a 30 percent K rate -- but he’s also shown a knack for making good adjustments.
His approach has matured, a big reason why his K rate this year is an impressive 18.4 percent. He works counts and will draw some walks, helping him get to better counts where he can do damage, which he does on the regular.
He’s a solid defender whose strong arm works well in right field. He’s played a bunch at first base this year, so if Mountcastle misses considerable time there, he’s more than ready to fill in, though it’s his bat that could really provide a lift.
That, and his energy. All year, the Orioles have received boosts from top-level prospects touching their big league roster. When Kjerstad makes his debut, he’ll be the seventh Top 100 guy to play for Baltimore. Kjerstad plays with an enthusiasm that’s infectious, no doubt aided by his prolonged time away from the game. He has a very noticeable “take nothing for granted” attitude he brings to the ballpark every day.
General manager Mike Elias and staff have helped build a team sitting atop the AL East, which might sound like a big burden for a young player. But as has been the case with many of the callups in Baltimore this year, no one comes in with an expectation of being the savior. Kjerstad should be able to embrace that and find ways to add to the O’s offense when given the chance.
“The players come up and are brought into a winning environment,” Elias said. “That’s positive. The weight of the world is not on their shoulders. Now we’re in a mode when we bring a player up, they’re asked perhaps to be a role player for a few weeks, come off the bench, there’s less pressure on them.”