SARASOTA—Entering spring training, Heston Kjerstad had played just 65 professional games. Like another Orioles’ top draft choice, Jackson Holliday, who was invited to major league camp after only 20 pro games, Kjerstad is making a positive impression.
In 2020, Kjerstad was the second overall pick in the draft and couldn’t play that season because the minor league season was canceled. Myocarditis, a inflammation of the heart muscle, cost him the 2021 season. A year ago, a hamstring injury delayed the 24-year-old outfielder’s first game until June 9th.
In his first camp, Kjerstad, MLB Pipeline’s 80th-ranked prospect, is 8-for-15 (.533) with two home runs, three RBIs and six runs scored.
He isn’t surprised by his success.
“Not at all,” he said. “I’ve prepared for this the whole offseason, my whole career. This is what I’ve prepared for. Honestly, there still are some things here and there, even though it’s going good, it’s like, ‘dang, I wish I had that pitch back or that [at-bat] back.’
“You’re always chasing the rabbit in the game of baseball. Even when it’s going good, you wish it was going better. When it’s not going so great, you still want it to be better than what it is. I’m just still trying to strive to be better every day.”
Manager Brandon Hyde had seen little of Kjerstad before this camp.
“I was just looking forward to watching him play,” Hyde said. “I’ve never seen him play. What’s been remarkable is how hard he hits the baseball. It’s really impressive. This guy’s going to be a really good hitter, a potential huge power guy. He’s looking to do damage at the plate, and he swings at the baseball, and he’s trying to do damage, and how strong he is. I’ve been impressed. He’s one of the ones that I’ve been really impressed with.”
Kjerstad’s first spring training has been a learning experience.
“You’re around a lot of veteran guys who have a lot of experience in the league,” Kjerstad said. “There are certain things here and there, whether it’s just small conversations on how to handle your workouts or maybe it’s approach at the plate. Every day you’re coming here, you’re learning something. Sometimes, it’s something small. Sometimes, maybe it’s something that makes an impact on your game.”
Last year, Kjerstad tore up the Carolina League, hitting .463 with a 1.201 OPS in 22 games with Single-A Delmarva. His time at High-A Aberdeen was more difficult. Kjerstad hit .233 with three home runs and 20 RBIs in 43 games.
After the season, Kjerstad was named the Arizona Fall League’s Most Valuable Player when he hit .357 with five home runs, 17 RBIs and a 1.002 OPS in 22 games. He’s now getting a graduate course in baseball.
“I’m not sure what it is,” he said. “It’s just an opportunity to come out here and become a better player, learn some things every day and working to get better. That’s all I’m viewing it as, another opportunity to learn some things and become a better player.”
He’s not in awe of the major leaguers he’s facing.
“They’re at that level and there’s no reason why I can’t compete against them,” Kjerstad said. “Every day I go out there, you’re facing guys you saw on TV for a lot of years, but I’ve also worked hard to be where I’m at, and pretty good at my craft, so let’s see what you’ve got. Let’s compete and let’s see who can win the battle. I may get you one day. You may get me the next. I’m going to keep showing up and trying to prove myself and be better.”
Kjerstad is also learning in the field and feels comfortable in the outfield
“One hundred percent. I’ve been able to get a lot of good work with coach [Anthony] Sanders,” Kjerstad said. “He’s been able to help me with a few things, whether it’s a first-step read, things like that. It’s definitely a little different. Guys hit the ball a lot harder. It carries better. You also get a little help with positioning.
“Certain guys have tendencies and maybe slice the ball, go to a certain gap. You have a little bit of anticipation or a little bit of a scouting report to help you read guys on the style of hitting and the way they hit the ball.”
Kjerstad, who played some first base in high school and as a junior at the University of Arkansas, has recently picked up a first base mitt in camp.
“I’ve only done it a day or two,” Kjerstad said. “They just told me they’re going to teach me how to do that. Maybe it’s something to add later on or maybe it’s something to help me get an extra position, be more versatile in the long run for the team or the [organization] whatever they need me to do.
It won’t be easy for Kjerstad, but he’s eager to try it.
“Definitely need a lot of work to be good at it. I’ll see what comes out of it,” he said.
Hyde isn’t making a big deal of Kjerstad’s first base work. He doesn’t think he’ll get any action there in Grapefruit League games.
“As long as he’s with us, probably not. I have nine first basemen,” he said, laughing.
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