Since the beginning of baseball’s coronavirus shutdown in March, the Orioles’ new minor league staff under director of player development Matt Blood has worked to keep players engaged with a variety of virtual meetings and baseball prescriptions to keep them growing in an arid baseball climate.
To emphasize nutrition, they’ve had more than 150 people on Zoom family dinners. They also have had daily sessions with mental skills coordinator Kathryn Rowe, and earlier in the spring had book clubs on the growth mindset mentality that dictates their organizational culture.
All of those things are among the first official actions new draftees such as No. 2 overall pick Heston Kjerstad and undrafted free agents will be introduced to by the Orioles.
The organization has put together Zoom calls and activities to welcome the newcomers and get them up to speed before getting them onto the same schedule as the rest of the team’s minor leaguers.
“We’re already in the process of getting him engaged with our player development department and our strength and conditioning department, and our entire support system that we’re extending across the organization right now for players that are kind of on their own to train while they’re at home,” executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias said on a video call Wednesday.
Kjerstad, who signed earlier this week, said that while it’s still “super early,” he has an idea of what the plan will be.
“They’re planning on getting in touch with me with the hitting coaches and stuff like that, and developing a plan for all of us minor leaguers as a group for what we’ll do going forward and how we can start preparing for this offseason and getting ready for the next minor league season,” Kjerstad said.
What those hitting plans are depend on the player, which someone with a unique swing like Kjerstad will like. On draft night, he cited Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Trout as swing influences.
Recent Orioles draftee Gunnar Henderson said last month that the organization wasn’t imposing anything on players, but instead providing them with detailed packets of information on their swing. The packet includes examples of major league players the young Orioles could watch as well as specific drills that can help emphasize what they’re good at.
“But they’re not really going to make you do it,” Henderson said. “That’s what I kind of like. You get to find what fits your swing — it’s not just a set criteria. We get to see what works and see what helps it rather than hinder it.”
Kjerstad, an Amarillo, Texas, native, will presumably be like many of the Orioles’ minor leaguers in southern states who after initial lockdown periods now have gyms and baseball facilities open to them near their homes.
Other opportunities to play may arise, too. Baseball America reported this week that some players may be allowed to play independent league baseball, with their organization’s permission, now that minor league season is officially canceled.
Some prospects may be added to the Orioles’ 60-man player pool later in the summer as an opportunity to get some controlled work in, too. Although Elias stressed again that the Orioles didn’t want to be caught in a bad position with the major league team by filling their secondary camp with prospects for developmental purposes.
However it happens, it will be a unique start to a development path that Elias said could make Kjerstad the headline of a “very impactful draft class.”
“It’s definitely tough not being able to go out and play games,” Kjerstad said. “Me personally, I think that’s the best way to improve as a player to be playing every day and facing high-level competition. It’s definitely something you’re going to have to work with. Every minor leaguer is struggling with the same thing — nobody is going to face competition. You’re going to need to be a little creative in your training, and also making sure maybe you’re getting live at-bats wherever you’re at with a group of guys, or doing a lot of machine work to simulate real at-bats and things like that just to stay prepared. You’ve always got to keep improving.”