Heston Kjerstad has spent the past nine months reminding everyone why he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft.
As a non-roster spring training invitee, the former Arkansas baseball standout homered in his first two at bats with the Baltimore Orioles on Saturday, part of a 3-for-3 performance in which he showed off the majestic swing he was known for in college.
“There’s a lot more to come,” Kjerstad said. “Definitely a good little start, but I’ve got to remain focused. It’s a long year.”
Arguably the Razorbacks’ greatest hitter of all-time, Kjerstad has picked up where he left off despite more than a two-year gap between the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and his professional debut last June.
Following an extended bout with myocarditis — a heart condition stemming from COVID-19 — and a stint on the injured list with a hamstring strain, Kjerstad tore it up in Single-A (.463/.551/.650 in 22 games) and quickly got promoted to High-A. It took a bit of an adjustment period, but he finished the year strong and carried it into the Arizona Fall League.
Facing talent comparable to Double-A ball, Kjerstad hit .357/.385/.622 with a league-leading 15 extra-base hits. That earned him MVP honors for the league, joining previous winners like Nolan Arenado (2011), Kris Bryant (2013) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (2017).
In addition to the two home runs he hit in his spring training debut, he nearly hit a third, but a deep fly to left sliced just foul. It was quite the impression for Baltimore Orioles manager Brandon Hyde, who was seeing him play for the first time and described his power as “impressive.”
“He looks amazing, feels great,” Hyde added. “The way he’s swinging the bat so far this spring has been really fun to watch.”
It’s still early, but Kjerstad is 4 for 5 so far this spring. Now ranked as the No. 6 prospect in the Orioles’ minor league system and No. 80 overall by MLB Pipeline, there is talk of him potentially getting the call to the big leagues by the end of this season.
“Needless to say, his first two games have been really strong,” wrote Kyle April of TheBaltimoreBattery.com. “It’ll be interesting to see going forward in spring training, but the promise for him is there. … If he displays consistency and shows the power stroke we all know he possesses, we could definitely see him in orange and black by September.”
Other Former Arkansas Baseball Players at Spring Training
Along with Heston Kjerstad, the Arkansas baseball program is well represented at spring training, with a total of 14 former players invited to participate in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues.
Brian Anderson — Milwaukee Brewers
Beginning his career in Miami, Brian Anderson dealt with shoulder injuries the last two years that caused his offensive production to dip. Now healthy, he signed a one-year “prove it” deal with the Brewers this offseason and is expected to play primarily third base after being a true utility player with the Marlins.
Jalen Beeks — Tampa Bay Rays
A heavy contributor for the Rays in 2019 with 100-plus innings, Jalen Beeks worked his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2020-2021. Making his return to the bump in 2022, he posted a 2.80 ERA in 61 innings. Fully healthy, Beeks is striving to become a key component on a team that is open to using bullpen arms in various fashions.
Andrew Benintendi — Chicago White Sox
With a resume that already includes a World Series title, an All-Star nod and a Gold Glove Award, Andrew Benintendi will start fresh with the Chicago White Sox. He signed a five-year contract worth $75 million — the richest deal in franchise history — after spending the 2022 season with the Royals and the Yankees. A broken hamate bone in his right hand caused him to miss the last month of the regular season and the playoffs.
Isaiah Campbell — Seattle Mariners
Coming off a dominant season in which a 0.82 ERA in 33 innings at High-A prompted a promotion to Double-A, where he returned to the Natural State with the Arkansas Travelers, Isaiah Campbell earned an invitation to spring training with the Mariners. He ended the 2022 season ranked No. 24 on MLB Pipeline’s list of Seattle’s top 30 prospects.
Matt Cronin — Washington Nationals
Prior to the 2021 season, Matt Cronin ranked as the Nationals 9th overall prospect according to Baseball America. Cronin was invited to spring training that year and was then sent down to High-A ball to begin the regular season. In 2022, Cronin pitched in both Double-A and Triple-A and combined for a 2.94 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 52 innings.
Dominic Fletcher — Arizona Diamondbacks
Drafted in the second round of the 2019 MLB Draft, Dominic Fletcher has quickly climbed through the Diamondbacks’ farm system. He made the jump from Double-A to Triple-A last season and hit .312 with 12 home runs and 72 RBIs across the two levels. Arizona added him to its 40-man roster in November.
Zach Jackson — Oakland A’s
Originally selected by the Blue Jays in the 2016 MLB Draft, Zach Jackson was picked up by the A’s in the Rule 5 Draft in December 2020. Jackson was made Oakland’s Opening Day roster last year and seeks to carve out a larger role in 2023.
Evan Lee — Washington Nationals
Selected to participate in the 2021 Arizona Fall League, Evan Lee showed enough promise to be added to the Nationals’ 40-man roster following the 2021 season. He made his MLB debut with a start last June and also appeared in three other games as a reliever. However, Washington dropped him from its 40-man roster this offseason.
James McCann — Baltimore Orioles
After making an All-Star appearance in 2019 with the White Sox, McCann signed a four-year deal with the Mets following the 2020 season. In December, he was traded to the Orioles in hopes of providing assistance in furthering the development of former No. 1 overall pick Adley Rutschman.
Matt Reynolds — Cincinnati Reds
Matt Reynolds has had a tough go at things on the professional circuit. Aside from his brief stay in the majors with the Mets in 2016, he has been let go from multiple teams and found it difficult to reestablish himself in the big leagues. Reynolds made stops with the Nationals, Royals, White Sox, Mets and has been with the Reds since being claimed off waivers in April 2022. He’s currently in Triple-A, but was invited to spring training.
Drew Smyly — Chicago Cubs
A tenured arm, Drew Smyly is entering his 10th season in the big leagues — not including the two years he missed with injuries. Finding success in 2021 with Atlanta, Smyly was an integral part of the World Series championship with an 11-4 record and 4.48 ERA. In March 2022, Smyly signed a one-year deal with the Cubs. He posted a 3.47 ERA in 106 1/3 innings last season and has since re-signed with the same club for another two years.
Ryne Stanek — Houston Astros
Finding a niche as an “opener” for the Rays in 2018, Ryne Stanek made his mark on the league by setting an MLB record with 17 straight starts in which he allowed one or fewer runs. After signing with the Astros in 2021, Stanek became a staple in the Astros’ bullpen and actually broke the single-season club record with a 1.15 ERA in 2022.
Trevor Stephan — Cleveland Guardians
Selected in the 2020 Rule 5 Draft by the Guardians from the Yankees, Trevor Stephan has been a steady producer in Cleveland since his arrival. He made the Opening Day roster in 2021 and has since locked down a bullpen spot for the Guardians.
SEC Baseball Players at MLB Spring Training
There are 14 former Razorbacks on MLB spring training rosters. According to research by Best of Arkansas Sports, that ranks fourth in the SEC:
- Vanderbilt: 20
- Mississippi State: 17
- Florida: 15
- Arkansas: 14
- LSU: 11
- Auburn: 10
- Kentucky: 10
- South Carolina: 10
- Missouri: 9
- Ole Miss: 8
- Texas A&M: 8
- Alabama: 7
- Tennessee: 5
- Georgia: 4
It should come as no surprise that three of the top four programs listed above are led by coaches Dave Van Horn (1,172 wins), Vanderbilit’s Tim Corbin (841 wins), and Florida’s Kevin O’ Sullivan (634 wins).
For teams in the SEC, producing MLB talent can serve as a hook in recruiting pitches because these programs regularly target and recruit the same high-caliber prospects. Arkansas baseball has incorporated this into their social media presence by establishing the only player development twitter account in the SEC, which highlights former Razorbacks in their professional endeavors, including Kjerstad’s outstanding day at the plate.The account also covers pro players’ progression through injuries, such as Christian Franklin, and contract signings like Brian Anderson with the Brewers.
Best of Arkansas Sports managing editor Andrew Hutchinson contributed to this story.
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