Orioles’ Kjerstad crowned MVP of Arizona Fall League

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — After health issues delayed his pro debut for two years, Heston Kjerstad made up for lost time in a big way in the Arizona Fall League.

An outfielder selected by Baltimore second overall in the 2020 Draft, Kjerstad crushed a 424-foot home run on Opening Day of the developmental circuit and never stopped raking. The No. 9 Orioles prospect led the AFL in hits (35), doubles (nine), extra-base hits (15) and total bases (61) and ranked in the top five in several other categories while batting .357/.385/.622.

“It’s an amazing honor,” Kjerstad said. “There’s obviously a lot of great players out here that I’m playing against and are playing really good out here, but to be the one who’s awarded that is a really great honor.”

The Fall League honored Kjerstad with its Joe Black MVP Award on Saturday, putting him in the same company as previous winners such as Nolan Arenado (2011), Kris Bryant (2013) and Ronald Acuña Jr. (2017).

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Heston Kjerstad’s two-run homer
“It’s really cool to be a part of that group,” Kjerstad said.

Kjerstad slammed 37 homers in three seasons at Arkansas, establishing himself as the best college lefty power hitter in the 2020 Draft. Expected to go around the 10th overall pick, he instead went second because Baltimore valued his pop and because he agreed to a below-slot $5.2 million bonus that freed up more money for later picks.

Kjerstad didn’t get a chance to justify his selection on the field until 2022 because he was diagnosed with myocarditis, a viral inflammation of the heart, shortly after the Draft. The condition prevented him from participating in the Orioles’ instructional league program in 2020 or playing in the Minors in 2021. He finally made his pro debut this June and batted .309/.394/.457 with five homers in 65 games between Single-A and High-A.

“I went through some struggles [in High-A], but that was one thing I was looking forward to when I was coming out here. It wouldn’t have been a great way to end my season,” Kjerstad said. “Let’s see what we can do out here. Clean slate, let’s go out there, I’ve been working on some things, let’s see how they’re gonna pay off and how that works for me. Luckily, I had a pretty good stint out here, so that was fun.”

While he’s known mostly for his power, Kjerstad is also a decent athlete for a 6-foot-3, 205-pounder. He has a solid arm that fits well in right field. He struck out 31 times versus just five walks in 104 AFL plate appearances, in part because he focuses on looking for pitches to drive early in at-bats, an approach that can leave him behind in the count.

Heston Kjerstad’s solo home run
Once Kjerstad tightens his plate discipline, he could give Baltimore another middle-of-the-order bat to go with Adley Rutschman and Gunnar Henderson. The franchise’s future is looking much brighter than it did a year ago, as is Kjerstad’s.

“It’s really exciting. We all want to have a great career, a great future, but it’s gonna be cool to be a part of a team that’s really competitive in the postseason and hopefully competes really well and makes really good playoff runs,” Kjerstad said. “Playing baseball is fun, but we all know winning is way more fun. To be able to hopefully get up there and be a part of winning teams and a culture like that will be a lot of fun in the future.”

The complete list of AFL Joe Black MVP Award winners:

2021 — Nelson Velázquez, OF, Mesa (Cubs)
2019 — Royce Lewis, SS/OF, Salt River (Twins)
2018 — Keston Hiura, 2B, Peoria (Brewers)
2017 — Ronald Acuña, OF, Peoria (Braves)
2016 – Gleyber Torres, SS, Scottsdale (Yankees)
2015 — Adam Engel, OF, Glendale (White Sox)
2014 — Greg Bird, 1B, Scottsdale (Yankees)
2013 — Kris Bryant, 3B, Mesa (Cubs)
2012 — Chris McGuiness, 1B, Surprise (Rangers)
2011 — Nolan Arenado, 3B, Salt River (Rockies)
2010 – Dustin Ackley, 2B, Peoria (Mariners)
2009 — Grant Desme, OF, Phoenix (Athletics)
2008 — Tommy Hanson, RHP, Mesa (Braves)
2007 — Sam Fuld, OF, Mesa (Cubs)
2006 — Chip Cannon, 1B, Phoenix (Blue Jays)
2005 — Eric Duncan, 3B, Grand Canyon (Yankees)
2004 — Chris Shelton, DH, Grand Canyon (Tigers)
2003 — Jason Dubois, OF, Mesa (Cubs)
2002 — Ken Harvey, 1B, Scottsdale (Royals)