Ben McDonald was chosen by the Orioles as the first overall pick in the 1989 Major League Baseball draft. After pitching seven seasons for them and two for the Milwaukee Brewers, he began a career in broadcasting. McDonald analyzes Orioles games on MASN and 105.7 The Fan and also works on ESPN and the SEC Network.
McDonald discussed the Orioles’ draft last week. The interview has been edited for length.
Question: Were you surprised that the Orioles chose Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with their first pick instead of Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin?
McDonald: “I was surprised because it seemed like in every poll that was out there, every projection that was out there, everybody had the Orioles taking Martin at No. 2, but looking back now on my conversations with [general manager] Mike Elias, and seeing him around the SEC schools last year scouting and looking at these players, it wasn’t a total shock.
“A lot of people didn’t even have Kjerstad in the top five picks that the Orioles may take. I remember tweeting back to somebody, ‘Don’t sleep on Heston Kjerstad.’
“I remember watching Heston Kjerstad over the years. I felt like he was the best left-handed bat in college baseball. When he stepped on campus in Fayetteville, he hit 13 homers as a freshman, then he backed it up with 17 in his sophomore year and was on place to hit 23, 24 home runs [this year], which would have led the SEC by far, which we talk about as the best conference in college baseball.
“To me, it wasn’t a total shock. I get it. I can poke some holes in all these kids that we talked about. Kjerstad’s defense to me has to get a little bit better. Some of the routes he took to the baseball that I saw him take over the last 2 ½ years weren’t great, but I think that with enough reps, he can overcome that because it’s an average big league arm.
“There’s some pop there. He’s going to hit home runs at the big league level. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s a guy that’s going to stick in the outfield. He’s going to stay there, and he’s going to hit for average, too because he’s hit for average every year in a very difficult conference.
“There’s some swing-and-miss there, and that needs to improve a little bit, but in today’s game, swing-and-miss doesn’t seem to be a big shocker to anybody.”
Q: Did you like Martin as a player?
A: “You could have the guy No. 2 overall. You want to be able to say, ‘He’s my third baseman. He’s my shortstop. He’s my centerfielder of the future. He’s my No. 3 starter in the rotation. Austin Martin didn’t really have a position because he never showed me that he could play the left side of the infield at the big league level because of his arm strength.
“I may be wrong, and his arm strength gets better. I tell people, ‘The Orioles weren’t the only team to pass on him.’ If he was that great, and everybody thought that much about him, why did two other clubs pass on him, too, before he was finally taken fifth overall.
“I love Austin Martin. I think he’s a big leaguer all day long. He has some things that Kerstad can’t do. He can steal some bases. He’s a little speedier of a guy. He doesn’t swing-and-miss very often. When you talk about potential production, [Kjerstad’s] going to hit a lot more home runs at the big league level than Austin Martin will.”
Q: After the first day of the draft, Elias talked about how tough a conference the SEC is. Were you pleased that three of the top four picks came from SEC schools?
A: “It’s hard to grade kids. It’s hard to judge them. It’s hard to project them out over time because you want to see them play a high level of baseball, and that’s what’s very difficult about high school kids. You’re almost projecting them on what the radar gun says and how fast they can run.
“College kids, you get a chance to see them perform at higher levels, and the SEC is the highest level there is in college baseball, and some of these kids are Team USA guys where you’re able to grade them out against tougher competition over the last couple of years.
“I know Mike Elias. He does his homework. It was eerily similar to 2012 when he took [Carlos] Correa No. 1 overall. and he saved some money. Ultimately, that’s what I think is going to end up happening. You’ll get Kjerstad for a little bit less money, and he’ll end up poring it in to the back end. I think the fifth and sixth picks have been signed for way over slot value.
“Mike has said he wants to inject as much talent into the Orioles as quickly as he can. I wish in the third round, we would have grabbed [Georgia right-hander] Cole Wilcox along the way. I knew he had a huge number, but I felt like that might be a possibility. He went [Hudson] Haskin instead, the outfielder from Tulane. I know a lot about Anthony Servideo, I’ve seen him play a good bit. I’ve seen Jordan Westburg play, but all in all, it was a very solid draft for the Orioles.”
Q: Were you surprised that the Orioles waited until their last pick to choose a pitcher?
A: “I was, a little bit. The strength of the Orioles’ minor league system is obviously the pitching. There’s some real stars down there, Grayson Rodriguez, [DL] Hall and some other guys. If we talk about the Orioles and what their strength is in the minor leagues, there’s some outstanding position players down there, too.
“It’s eerily similar to what Mike has done with Houston in the past. He really went position player heavy, and then he added some pitchers, some free agents when they really felt they had a chance to win. Maybe that’s the blueprint again.
“I know there are some good arms out there that I really liked in the third and fourth round that I’d seen a lot. I was hoping they were going to go in that direction because I didn’t know that much about Haskin, and the two high school kids [Coby] Mayo and [Carter] Baumler.
“Mayo sounds like a really nice athlete and a kid that’s very big, and he’s athletic.
“I was a little bit surprised that they didn’t go with a pitcher because there were some really nice arms still on the board. At the end of the day, you’ve really got to trust Mike Elias and the front office and the direction they’re going.
“Mike’s got a blueprint, and it worked pretty well in Houston, and I think he’s going to stick with that blueprint. He didn’t have a whole lot of success with early-round pitching prospects in Houston, but he had a ton of success with position players. I think they did their homework. Next year might be a different story. It might be a really pitcher-heavy draft for the Orioles next year.”