Orioles prospect Heston Kjerstad ‘enjoying the crap out of’ strong debut for Delmarva after two lost years

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SALISBURY — If there’s any doubt Heston Kjerstad won’t be the same player he was before two lost years, none of it belongs to him.

Having developed the heart condition myocarditis shortly after becoming the Orioles’ second overall draft pick in 2020 and then suffering a strained left hamstring during his first spring training, Baltimore’s No. 10 prospect has endured several questions about his future. They haven’t changed his belief in his ability.


“It’s still there,” Kjerstad said Tuesday. “It comes back to you as soon as you step back in the box.

“I felt like I was at home again.”


Kjerstad has certainly looked that way in his nearly two weeks with Low-A Delmarva. Since making his professional debut two years to the day after Baltimore drafted him, the 23-year-old outfielder is batting .400 with a .957 OPS in his first eight games.

With a bat resting between his legs, he sat in the stands Tuesday at Delmarva’s Perdue Stadium before beginning his first full homestand with an Orioles affiliate, taking a break amid several rounds of Shorebirds batting practice. Kjerstad is working on his timing and approach, he said, something any hitter would do regardless of when they last played.

If anything, he feels as if he’s a better player than when he last took the field for Arkansas, describing himself as “more mature as a person and a player after what I’ve been through.” He also believes he’s gained plenty simply from watching baseball, picking the brains of “high-level players” such as Adley Rutschman, Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, his predecessors among Baltimore’s first-round picks.

He missed being part of a team, though, and the camaraderie that comes with that. He’s adjusting to the schedule of being a professional, with more games, earlier report times and longer bus rides. But after the past two years, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m enjoying the crap out of it,” he said. “It’s fun to have that back, rather than going to the training room every day. It’s nice to go out onto the baseball field to play a game.

“Once I get on the field between the lines, it’s just like, ‘All right, we’re playing baseball,’ and everything else kind of just slowly fades into the background.”

Arkansas' Heston Kjerstad (18) stands with his teammates during a game Feb. 28, 2020, in Houston. During his two lost years as an Orioles prospect, Kjerstad said he missed being part of a team and the camaraderie that comes with that.

On top of games, his days also include adapting to affiliated ball, particularly the time and energy management involved. Helping him get into a routine is the coaching staff’s goal, Delmarva hitting coach Brink Ambler said.

“He can do some things that not everybody can do,” Ambler said. “We all obviously know he’s a very good player. There’s not really a whole lot that we do to steer Heston in the right direction. It’s just kind of, ‘Hey, your only goal is to be here, be part of this, and do your best and try to continue to get comfortable in this environment.’”


Kjerstad has fared well doing that himself. He’s already familiar with many of his teammates, having been around them in Florida either while rehabilitating or at spring training. Right-hander Carter Baumler, a fellow 2020 draftee who also missed last season while rehabbing from Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, said Kjerstad is an expert jokester, noting “he’s got new material weekly.”

“You’re really, really happy for the person, all the stuff that he has gone through, to actually come to where he’s at right now,” Shorebirds manager Felipe Alou Jr. said. “Hell of a human being. … The kid, it’s no doubt why he got picked in the first round. It’s fun to watch him. I’m pretty sure his teammates feel the same. Brings some different type of energy when he’s on the field.”

That energy is part of what inspired the Orioles to take Kjerstad with the draft’s second overall pick two years ago. After a career at Arkansas in which he hit 37 home runs with a 1.011 OPS in 150 career games, he was expected to go early in the first round, but not quite that high. The savings from his signing bonus allowed Baltimore to take infielder Coby Mayo, now the organization’s No. 5 prospect, and Baumler, ranked 20th in the system, in the shortened draft’s final rounds.

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But the perception of the strategy largely hinges on Kjerstad, and he’s aware his health situation has prompted external scrutiny of the pick. The following three selections in 2020 — Miami Marlins right-hander Max Meyer, Kansas City Royals left-hander Asa Lacy and Minnesota Twins shortstop Austin Martin — are all ranked among the league’s top 65 prospects, according to MLB Pipeline.

“I heard it, I saw it, stuff like that,” he said. “That’s part of being an athlete. But for me, I understand who I am as a player, and I understand it’s baseball and it’s life. I’m not the first player to be in my shoes and experience something like that, and I’m not going to be the last. I’m back playing, so now, got to prove it on the field.

“Expectations that everybody else puts on me aren’t even close to the expectations I put on myself.”


Those expectations, for now, center on controlling what he can to improve on a given day. String enough of those days together, he said, and “I’ll eventually become the player I want to be.”

Those who are witnessing the start of his professional career with Delmarva have little doubt he’ll do just that.

“It’s really nice to see him get those opportunities to be that guy, get those opportunities to hit in those big spots, the things that he loves to do that he hasn’t been able to do for a while,” Ambler said. “He’s gonna have a great career. It’s gonna go well beyond here.

“For him, this is just the start.”