Amid all the talk of preparing in a global pandemic without amateur baseball to scout, possible signing bonus strategies and everything else that went into the Orioles’ selection at No. 2 overall in the MLB draft Wednesday, the team’s front office stressed that it was a pick that they wanted to get right. Getting it right meant selecting an impact bat who could live in the middle of their batting order for years to come.
Few expected that would mean taking Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad, who the Orioles believe satisfies their first-round goal while possibly being the start of a strategy spreading around some of their nearly $14 million in bonus pool money.
“This is a middle-of-the-order bat profile for us, and we feel that he’s the best left-handed hitter in the country this year,” Elias said after the draft. “This is somebody that’s going to hit for average and power, and hit in the middle of our order for a long time while playing a quality right field defense.
“I think the thing we like about him the most, other than the bat and his makeup, other than who he is and where he comes from, is the fact that his power is really foul-pole to foul-pole — all fields, all types of pitches. He’s a monster and we’re really excited to develop him in our system and get him in the middle of our lineup one day.”
Combined with Mississippi State shortstop Jordan Westburg, who the Orioles selected with their competitive balance round pick at No. 30 overall, the team added a pair of developed college bats who could quickly be providing value for the major league club.
Kjerstad, a power-hitting left-handed bat who played center field for the Razorbacks, comes to the Orioles with a prolific track record. He hit 14 and 16 home runs as an everyday player his freshman and sophomore years, batting .332 with a .972 OPS in 2018 and .329 with a .978 OPS in 2019 while earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors and helping Arkansas to the College World Series in 2018 and 2019.
He was on pace to have an even more impressive junior year before the coronavirus pandemic shut down college baseball in March, batting .448 with a 1.304 OPS and six home runs while improving his strikeout-to-walk rate significantly.
Elias said: “Heston is a guy that was on the radar screen in high school out of a small high school in Amarillo Texas, ended up going to Arkansas, was dominant from the minute he stepped foot on campus; kind of had a growth spurt, the power came and had two All-American-caliber seasons the first two years. Went to Team USA, raked for Team USA — almost hit .400 with three homers — then started off this year like absolute gangbusters until the shutdown hit and we think it would have been a historic season had it kept going.”
Kjerstad said he thinks the Orioles under Elias have some of the best player development in baseball, though he has done plenty to advance his game on his own. He cited Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout as players he’s watched to take pieces of their swing. He looks forward to using the B&O Warehouse in right field at Oriole Park at Camden Yards for home run target practice.
“I’m going to be an impact player for sure,” Kjerstad said. “I’ll bring a left-handed bat to the lineup that has power to all parts of the field — left, right and center. I also bring a good glove to the outfield, whether it’s left or right or wherever they put me. I’ll be a solid defender. And also, one of the things that really contributes to helping a team win, which is the most important thing, is my camaraderie that I’m able to develop with my teammates and the type of teammate I am. The type of teammate I am to them really will be a big part for me in the clubhouse.”
While well-regarded, Kjerstad (pronounced KERR-stad) was farther down rankings than a second overall pick traditionally would be. The consensus top players remaining were Vanderbilt third baseman/outfielder Austin Martin and Texas A&M left-hander Asa Lacy. Kjerstad was ranked 13th in Baseball America’s draft rankings, and MLB Pipeline had him rated 10th on their draft rankings.
Kjerstad said those who question why he was trusted with such a lofty pick will learn quickly.
“When I went to Arkansas, there were a lot of people that thought I shouldn’t have been there,” Kjerstad said. “When I started as a freshman, they thought I shouldn’t have started as a freshman and I proved them wrong. Then, same sophomore year. They thought it was one-year luck, and I proved that wrong. It’s just another thing, and you know, people can just sit back and watch and I’ll keep doing my thing and I’m pretty sure I’ll slowly change a lot of minds and they’ll realize why my name was called so early if they don’t understand now.”
Drafting him second will presumably give the Orioles a chance to pay him less than the recommended slot bonus of $7,789,900 for the second overall pick and pass the savings along to the rest of their picks, specifically at Nos. 30 and 39.
When the draft signing bonus limits were introduced in 2012, the Houston Astros pioneered the strategy of going under-slot and spreading the bonus pool around to others when they took shortstop Carlos Correa first overall and signed several above-slot players later in the draft, including pitcher Lance McCullers.
Many believed that the Orioles would use some of those potential savings on a highly-rated pitcher at pick No. 30, but Elias said the ones they targeted were already off the board. He also laughed when asked if the strategy of signing Kjerstad for less than the full slot value played into picking him there.
“We haven’t signed him yet so it’s hard to say it factored in at all,” Elias said. “Listen, when you’re picking that high, you don’t want to feel like you’re not taking the guy that you want, that is the right guy for you and your draft. … We could have gone in a few directions. We like all those players up there. That’s how it is when you’re picking high. You’re comparing good options.”
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That strategy hinges on how the rest of the draft class is as assembled, however. If they’re going to pay a player above the recommended bonus slot, it may not be Westburg, though he brings a similarly well-developed bat who plays a premium defensive position with a unique combination of raw power and speed.
A career .282 hitter with an .822 OPS for the Bulldogs, Westburg also played for two College World Series teams in two seasons.
The Orioles have four picks remaining, beginning with the second pick of the second round on Thursday.
Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson went first overall to the Detroit Tigers.
Thursday, 5 p.m.: Rounds 2-5
TV: ESPN2, MLB Network