Heston Kjerstad and four other top prospects — outfielder Colton Cowser, and infielders Jackson Holliday, Coby Mayo and Connor Norby — are attending a development camp that began on Monday and runs through February 14th in Sarasota.
Kjerstad, an outfielder who was the second overall choice in the 2020 draft, turns 24 on Sunday, and he was one of seven Orioles who appeared at Checkerspot Brewing in Baltimore on Saturday.
He didn’t play in 2020 because the minor league season was canceled because of the pandemic. Myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, prevented him from playing in 2021. A hamstring injury in March 2022 delayed his professional debut until June 2022.
In 22 games with Single-A Delmarva, Kjerstad hit .463 with a 1.201 OPS, two home runs and 16 RBIs. At High-A Aberdeen, he hit .233 with three home runs and 20 RBIs. In the Arizona Fall League, Kjerstad impressed with a .357 average, a 1.007 OPS, five home runs and 17 RBIs in 22 games to capture the AFL’s Most Valuable Player award.
Kjerstad will attend major league spring training for the first time.
“To be invited is an honor and to work with the big league coaching staff and be around the big league players is going to be a huge learning opportunity and a chance to improve my game,” Kjerstad said.
Manager Brandon Hyde, co-hitting coaches Ryan Fuller and Matt Borgschulte and new offensive strategy coach Cody Asche, Triple-A Norfolk manager Buck Britton and several other minor league staffers will be working with Kjerstad and the others during the mini-camp.
It’s another reminder that Kjerstad’s health issues are in the past, and that he can be treated like the prized prospect he is.
“Just to be able to go out and worry about baseball, focus on baseball, working my way through the minors has been awesome,” Kjerstad said.
Last year, the Orioles eased him into pro ball, but he said there won’t be any limitations this season.
“No chance,” he said. “I’m feeling good, feeling great. Luckily, got everything else behind me and ready to focus on this season and play a lot of baseball and work my way up.”
It was huge for Kjerstad to make his professional debut in June.
“You get that first game out of the way,” he said, “and after that you’re back to the baseball thing: ‘I missed that pitch. I should have swung at that one.’ That’s when you kind of get back into the groove, the baseball feel and the baseball grind.”
Kjerstad benefited from his time in Arizona.
“Man, there were so many great players out there that I got to face and play with,” he said. “It was a really great experience for me to get some more at-bats against some high-level arms. I got grooving there. It’s always good to have some success like that.
“That’s probably the best I’ve felt, for sure. Hopefully roll that into spring training and continue that this year.”
In three seasons at Arkansas, Kjerstad hit .343 with a 1.011 OPS with 37 homers, 129 RBIs in 150 games, and then he didn’t play for more than two years, but he’s satisfied with how he’s producing.
“I’m swinging it better just because I’m more mature as a hitter, taking better at-bats and I’ve got a little bit more pop than I used to more consistently,” Kjerstad said. “Honestly, I think that I’m a leg up from big then.”
Kjerstad should start the season at Double-A Bowie, and though the Orioles have plenty of outfielders and Cowser, who’ll start at Norfolk ahead of him, he’s not ruling out a late-season promotion to the major leagues.
“I don’t think anything’s out of the picture,” Kjerstad said. “If they need a guy and you’re the right guy at the time, you get your chance, and if I can stay healthy and play good, there’s a chance for that for any player in the org.”
Kjerstad didn’t allow the health issues to bring him down.
“I stayed positive the whole time,” he said. “We all go through some of those things as athletes, setbacks like that. Those are all learning moments for what’s to come in the future.”
Because of his time missed and his lack of professional experience, Kjerstad hasn’t been on all the top prospect lists, but he’s the No. 80 prospect in MLB Pipeline.
“It’s good to see when people respect what you’ve been doing,” Kjerstad said. “At the end of the day whether you’re on the list or how high you are on the list, you’ve got to go out and play baseball. You’ve got to earn your job. You’ve got to put up your numbers. You’ve got to help the team win, and you’ve got to go produce, whether you’re ranked really high or not.
“That’s the bottom line. That’s the fun thing about baseball. You’ve got to go out and prove it every day. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing this year.”
Kjerstad and the Orioles top pitching prospect, Grayson Rodriguez, were the only two players without major league experience who participated in last weekend’s Birdland Caravan.
“It’s awesome. Being up here in Maryland, you get to experience the fans,” Kjerstad said. “They love the O’s. They love the Birds. It’s cool to see this fanbase getting behind the team now. The team is up-and-coming, had a good season last year, just building upon it. The city loves baseball, and we love the fans, too. It makes it fun to play when the stadium’s packed. You’ve got the city behind you. It’ll be a lot of fun in the future.”
Call for questions: I’ll be answering Orioles questions in a mailbag just before spring training begins next week. Please email your questions to: [email protected].