Austin Hayes’ success provides the Orioles with a blueprint for Heston Kjerstad

The main news of the past week regarding the continued progress of rebuilding the Orioles ought to It was Heston Kerstad’s comeback, previously picked #2 (couldn’t let your fellow defenders get out of the spotlight, huh, Kyle Storrs). Even with some of the luster of Kjerstad’s debut now waning somewhat, it’s still another milestone in the brick-by-brick rebuilding that will (ultimately, hopefully) transform the Oriole into a warehouse-sized baseball force.

At the time of his drafting, Kjerstad was ranked third among the Orioles – ahead of the likes of Ryan Mountcastle, D. L. Hall and Gunnar Henderson. It was easy to imagine Kjerstad as the cleaning batsman behind Adley Rutschman in future Orioles formations, a nicely-swinging walking guy who showed huge potential for strength in the best college baseball conference.

But since the night of the draft, things have largely taken a turn for the worse. Bouts with COVID-19, myocarditis and a hamstring injury mean that 821 days passed between Kjerstad’s last swing as a member of the Arkansas Razorbacks and his first swing as an Orioles member. That break saw him drop from 3rd to 9th in the potential Orioles rankings and out of the MLB top 100 prospects altogether.

In retrospect, though, this isn’t the first time that a particularly promising external outlook by Orioles appears to have fallen from the upper echelon of prospects. In the path that now faces Kjerstad, there are many similarities to the path that Austin Hayes took to get to where he is today.

When Hays debuted in the league as a September call-up in 2017, he was a meteoric rising star and seemed destined to be Nick Markakis’ spiritual successor in the right field. That’s the kind of hype that comes when you get drafted in June 2016 and make your senior debut in September 2017.

Then, just like what went through as Gerstad, Hays’ career was largely halted due to health concerns. Entering 2018 as the 23rd prospect in all of baseball’s games, shoulder issues and a broken ankle restricted Hays to 75 games that year—nothing above AA. Just under two years passed between Hayes’ last major league game in 2017 and his next appearance with the Orioles in 2019. In other words, this rising meteor appears to have veered straight toward the sun.

However, if we’ve learned anything from the past two years of Orioles baseball, it’s that this Mike Elias-led organization can turn any player into a star. Something that baseball fans often struggle with is the misconception that all potential clients must walk linear paths toward MLB stardom. The expectation becomes, “Well, if Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Juan Soto all make their 19-year-olds, our guy’s debut at 24 or 25 means there’s no way he’s going to be good.” Or, at least, this is a mental trap that is easy to fall into.

However, the Orioles began to master a different plan. Breakdown and then bounce back has become somewhat of a staple for this generation of Orioles. Hays bounced back from a host of injuries to become a staple in the top half of the Orioles lineup. Cedric Mullins rebounded from a terrible start to the season in 2019, downgrading several times, becoming an All-Star starter in 2021. Tre Mancini bounced back from colon cancer to become a player on the verge of making his All-Star debut in 2022.

The Orioles’ recent track record suggests we shouldn’t be surprised when the great leftist from Amarillo, Texas, shows us why he deserves the No. 2 pick. After all, he’s already gone 3 for 7 in his first two games for Delmarva – as if he never left ! We Orioles fans just need to give him the benefit of patience.

The only question this writer has about Kjerstad is not about his ability to become a major league ready. Instead, it’s about how he stacks up with an abundance of talent in the Orioles arena once he’s ready for the major league. The stadium certainly seems to be where O’s really has the most established talent. Hays, Mullins and Anthony Santander have become so well-established as the starting trio that Mancini has only seen 62 innings of the OF this season, and Ryan Mount Castle has seen none of them.

This is to say nothing of the other possibilities that Kerstad chases when he begins his development. As Tyler Young recently pointed out, Stowers probably won’t stay in the majors for long this season. However, the fact that the Orioles want to promote him shows that the front office feels ready for the major league – no matter how long he has been on the 26-man roster. Then there’s Colton Kauser’s 2021 first-round pick, currently the No. 4 prospect for the Orioles. Cowser is not only a year younger than Kjerstad, but he already has more than 300 advantages in terms of experience in the minor league. Even a more generous organizational depth scheme would undoubtedly place Kjerstad as the sixth best defense player in the current Birds game.

While Kjerstad’s past and present draw many parallels with Hays, his future may ultimately be more intertwined with Trey Mancini. The sentiment around baseball is that Mancini’s hot start to the season could make him a highly sought-after asset on the trade deadline. While baseball is always a series of dominos and not a simple cause and effect, the possible departure of Boom Boom would certainly create a much clearer potential path for Kerstad. As the “first corner player for the bat,” the DH batsman will likely be Kjerstad’s first chance to make an impact in Baltimore. It will be very difficult to get to those players if Mancini is still playing orange and black after 2023.

The intricacies of envisioning the Orioles’ field of the future shouldn’t stray from the bottom line: that Kerstad is healthy again is great news no matter which way you take it. How big a brick it becomes in what Orioles build is something that only time (and patience) will prove.

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