BOWIE—Heston Kjerstad spent five weeks in the Orioles’ spring training camp, and he put that time to use wisely.
Kjerstad, who was the second overall pick in 2020 from the University of Arkansas, had never been to major league—or minor league—spring training.
After the 2020 minor league season was canceled because of the pandemic, Kjerstad missed 2021 because of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. In 2022, he pulled a hamstring muscle during workouts before the lockout ended and didn’t begin his professional career until June 9th.
“Showing up every day and having a plan, having an approach and executing it,” the 24-year-old outfielder said at Bowie media day last Tuesday.
“Once you take care of business that day, coming back the next day and keep doing it. Consistency is key to staying at that level for a lot of those guys that are veterans. That’s what a lot of them tell you. They say that’s the difference between a lot of guys, a lot of guys are really good from time to time…Guys that stay in the big leagues, guys that get there [are] really good a lot of the time.”
Kjerstad was helped out by another Arkansas player, Orioles catcher James McCann.
“He shows up every day,” Kjerstad said. “He’s one of the first ones there, really impressive work ethic. I was around him a decent amount. We went to the same university, so we kind of jelled over that. “
Kjerstad said McCann told him: ‘The days that you don’t want to do it, the days you don’t feel really good, or I don’t need to do my arm care, I feel great. Do it.’ That’s what he preached to me all the time. Just take care of the little things. If you’re feeling healthy, keep doing them because you’ll stay healthy.”
Spring training went well for Kjerstad. He hit .381 with a 1.219 OPS with four home runs and nine RBIs in 23 games, but he knew he wasn’t going to break camp with the Orioles.
“Going into camp and you know you’re going to be there for a certain amount of time,” he said. “You don’t know for how long. I was fortunate to be able to be there for a lot of the camp. Going back over to minor league camp is still the same. It’s still baseball. You’re still there for the same amount of time.
“You still have the ability. You get the same reps in. The games aren’t in front of the crowds. They’re not televised. They’re still really good competition. The main thing is, you kept showing up and getting my work in there, even on the back fields.”
In Bowie’s first three games, Kjerstad is hitting .250 (4-for-12) with a home run and three RBIs. Last season, Kjerstad began his pro career by hitting .463 in 22 games at Single-A Delmarva, but after he was promoted to High-A Aberdeen, he hit only .233 in 43 games.
The Orioles sent him to the Arizona Fall League, and he was named its most valuable player after hitting .357 with five home runs and 17 RBIs in 22 games.
Baysox manager Kyle Moore watched him in Orioles’ camp and is excited to manage him.
“I know his year in Aberdeen probably didn’t go great like he wished it would have,” Moore said. “Then he went out to the Fall League, and he totally dominated. His spring training was more of the same. He was one of our better hitters in big league camp. When I saw that, I said, ‘I hope he ends up here.’
“I know this organization likes to move players fast. Let’s hope that he comes, but he’s here, and we really just need him to be a leader on this ballclub and produce offensively like he’s capable of.”
Kjerstad said he didn’t go to spring training to convince people he was worthy of a top pick.
“Honestly, a lot of the time I don’t care about many people’s opinions,” he said. “There’s always people that are going to have their own. They’re entitled to it. When I go out there, I’m trying to be who I am and play the game and prove to myself how good I could be.
“My confidence coming in was the same as leaving. Obviously, being able to go against that competition proved it to a lot of other people, but my expectations for myself have always been pretty high. That wasn’t like a new level. That wasn’t, ‘oh wow, I didn’t know I could be that good.’”
Kjerstad has a simple goal.
“I want to be a better player at the end of the year than I am at the beginning of the year,” he said. “Show up every day and work to be better and hopefully have a fully healthy year to help compound on that and be able to have the most amount of time to have improvement.”
Follow Rich Dubroff on Twitter @RichDubroffMLB