Orioles minor league report: Heston Kjerstad to take his ‘sick ability’ to Norfolk after dominating Double-A

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In late April, Bowie Baysox manager Kyle Moore spoke about how easy the Double-A level was looking to Heston Kjerstad.

“I haven’t really seen him struggle. I’m sure he will. Everybody struggles a little bit,” Moore said about the second-highest level in the minor leagues. “I’m looking forward to the day where he has to make a little bit more of an adjustment.”


That day never came as Kjerstad, the No. 2 overall pick in 2020, was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk on Monday after hitting .310 with a .960 OPS with the Baysox.

“He’s the only hitter I’ve seen this year that’s pretty much ready to hit in the big leagues,” Moore said. “Right now, he’s physically better than everybody in the league, and he’s showing that.”


Kjerstad’s journey from first-round draft pick to a prospect one call away from a big league call-up didn’t come easy. He didn’t play a professional game for two years after he was drafted out of the University of Arkansas because of myocarditis, a heart condition, and a severe left hamstring strain. Once he made his return last summer, Kjerstad dominated Low-A ball and was promoted to High-A Aberdeen, where he struggled before winning the Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player Award.

“He’s the only hitter I’ve seen this year that’s pretty much ready to hit in the big leagues,” Double-A Bowie manager Kyle Moore said about Heston Kjerstad, pictured during Orioles spring training in February. “Right now, he’s physically better than everybody in the league, and he’s showing that.”

His performance this year, though, has been a clear step up. Statistically, he was Baltimore’s best hitter at spring training, posting a .381 batting average and a 1.219 OPS in 44 Grapefruit League plate appearances. He followed that up by hitting 10 doubles, three triples and 11 home runs in 46 games with Bowie, posting an OPS above .700 each week.

“He had to take so much time off to get over what he was going through that it was almost like he had to restart his career,” Moore said. “I think it just took him a year or so to get back going.

“I thought coaching him would be a big challenge, just given his history, given the fact that he was a second overall pick, he struggled in Aberdeen last year a little bit. I was really looking forward to the challenge of coaching this kid, and truthfully, he’s been a dream. It’s just been brilliant to watch him work. He’s been super receptive to everything I’ve talked to him about.”

Bowie hitting coach Sherman Johnson has also been impressed with Kjerstad, noting that his success at the plate was based not just on his supreme talent, but on “home, game planning and watching video.”

“He’s really been a joy to work with, honestly,” Johnson said. “If he swings at the right pitches, he’s going to play a long time in this game. He’s got a really sick ability to impact the ball, hit it at good angles and the swing and miss is starting to get better.”

Where Kjerstad fits in Baltimore is a question facing the 24-year-old and the Orioles. He was drafted as an outfielder, but he spent almost half his time with the Baysox at first base, a position he never played professionally before this season. In his minor league career, Kjerstad has played 64 games in right field, three in left field and 16 at first base.

“The biggest outlier for him and his development is: Where is he gonna play?” Moore said. “That’s what we were working on every single day here — early defense every day, ground balls every day. Everything that we could do defensively we’re pouring onto this guy because we need him to be an average defender in the big leagues.”


Kjerstad’s promotion wasn’t the only news to come out of the Orioles’ farm. That’s why each week, The Baltimore Sun will break down five of the top performers in Baltimore’s prospect ranks and hand out some superlatives for those who didn’t make that cut.

High-A Aberdeen shortstop Jackson Holliday, pictured warming up for a game in May, was named the South Atlantic League Player of the Month after hitting .384 last month.

1. High-A Aberdeen shortstop Jackson Holliday

Last week was the worst of Holliday’s season. In fact, it was his first bad week of the season. But that didn’t stop the accolades or praise from coming in, as Holliday was named the South Atlantic League Player of the Month after hitting .384 with a 1.137 OPS in May. Despite his 2-for-18 batting line last week, the 19-year-old’s OPS with the IronBirds is still 1.023. Between Low- and High-A, the 2022 No. 1 overall pick is slashing .351/.479/.595 with just three more strikeouts (43) than walks (40).

2. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Alex Pham

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Holliday wasn’t the only IronBird to win a monthly award. Pham was named the South Atlantic League Pitcher of the Month for his stellar performance in May. In 23 1/3 innings, the 23-year-old posted a 1.54 ERA and a .128 batting average against. In two starts last week, he allowed seven hits and four runs in 8 2/3 innings while striking out 10. In his first outing, he pitched five scoreless innings, surrendering just one hit and two walks in his second win of the season. On the year, Pham, a 19th-round pick in 2021, has a 2.90 ERA and a 33.1% strikeout rate.

3. Triple-A Norfolk infielder Jordan Westburg

In 648 plate appearances at Triple-A, Westburg is slashing .286/.370/.542 with 39 doubles, 33 homers, 122 RBIs, 14 stolen bases and 68 walks. Weeks like the last are becoming the norm for Westburg, as the 24-year-old went 7-for-25 with three doubles, two home runs, three walks and four RBIs. Westburg, Baltimore’s No. 5 prospect, is hitting .308 with a .988 OPS this season as he pushes for a promotion to the majors. His 15 home runs lead all Orioles minor leaguers.

4. Double-A Bowie outfielder Donta’ Williams

Williams was hitting .126 with a .444 OPS and five extra-base hits through the first six weeks of the season. But after back-to-back stellar weeks, the 23-year-old’s average is up to .200 with a .665 OPS. Williams, a fourth-round pick in 2021, went 9-for-18 last week with five doubles, six RBIs and three walks, including three-hit games Thursday and Sunday.

5. High-A Aberdeen right-hander Daniel Lloyd

Lloyd had a 7.64 ERA after his first five outings of the season, allowing 25 hits and 15 earned runs in 17 2/3 innings. In his 15 innings since, the 22-year-old has struck out 16 and allowed just three earned runs. In his start Friday, he struck out seven across five innings, allowing one run (zero earned), three hits and one walk. Lloyd, a 14th-round pick in 2021, has a 4.96 ERA and a 1.68 WHIP.


The top prospect not featured so far

Grayson Rodriguez was 4 2/3 innings away from graduating from Baseball America’s prospect status after his start May 26, but he was sent down to Triple-A after struggling for most of the month. In his first start back in the minors Sunday, he threw six innings — a feat he didn’t accomplish in his 10 starts in the big leagues. Rodriguez, Baltimore’s top pitching prospect, walked five as his command issues persisted, but he didn’t allow a run and surrendered just one hit.

International acquisition of the week

Across two relief outings last week, Delmarva right-hander César Álvarez pitched five innings without allowing an earned run. The 20-year-old pitched three scoreless innings Wednesday with three strikeouts, and four days later, he allowed an unearned run and struck out one in two innings. Since the Orioles signed him as a 16-year-old out of Venezuela in July 2019, Álvarez has pitched just 65 innings, but he has a 2.35 ERA and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings between rookie ball and Low-A.

Time to give a shout-out to …

Norfolk outfielder Shayne Fontana. The 25-year-old’s 1.113 OPS last week was one of the highest in the organization. Fontana, a 23rd-round pick in 2019, struggled when he reached Triple-A last season, hitting just .180 in 18 games. But in 32 games at the highest minor league level this season, Fontana has a .775 OPS. In 20 plate appearances last week, Fontana went 7-for-16 with three walks, two doubles and four RBIs.