Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL DRAFT:
For the birds: Orioles take Kjerstad with No. 2 pick
Arkansas right fielder Heston Kjerstad watches Friday, Feb. 14, 2020, as a home run sails over the left field wall during the seventh inning against Eastern Illinois at Baum-Walker Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The Baltimore Orioles surprised analysts across baseball Wednesday night by selecting University of Arkansas outfielder Heston Kjerstad with the second pick of the 2020 Major League Baseball Draft.
Kjerstad became the second-highest pick for the Razorbacks after infielder Jeff King, who was the first pick of the 1986 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kjerstad, the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2018, had a huge 16-game start in 2020, but most analysts projected he would be taken between the seventh and 12th picks in the draft. However, the 6-3 left-handed hitter had been in contact with Orioles General Manager Mike Elias and the franchise's Texas-based scout Ken Guthrie, a longtime friend of his father, leading up to the draft.
"They showed quite a bit of interest, and they said I was still in consideration for their No. 2 pick going into the draft today," Kjerstad said on a video conference with reporters. "I wasn't really trying to get my hopes up for any pick. I was just waiting for the phone to ring."
It rang just after the Detroit Tigers took Arizona State infielder Spencer Torkelson with the first pick of the draft.
"Sure enough, after the Detroit Tigers turned in their pick, the phone rang and it was the Orioles," Kjerstad said. "They wanted to take me with their second pick, and man I couldn't say 'yes' quick enough to that."
Kjerstad enjoyed draft night at his parents' home in Amarillo, Texas, surrounded by a large group of family and friends and the family dog, Oreo, whose excited reaction sparked a viral video.
Elias, speaking on a Twitter video, said the Orioles love Kjerstad's bat.
"He was the best left-handed hitter in the country this year, plays a good right field," Elias said. "He's a big guy with gigantic power. It's power to all fields. It's not just pull power."
Kjerstad sprayed his 37 career home runs to all parts of the field. An ESPN graphic depicting Kjerstad's 23 home runs in 2019-20 showed 5 home runs to left field, 2 to left-center, 4 to center field, 3 to right-center and 9 pull shots to right field.
"Man, I'm going to be an impact player for sure," Kjerstad said when asked to give a self-scouting report. "I bring a left-handed bat in the lineup that has power to all parts of the field, left, right and center. I also bring a good glove to the outfield, whether it's left or right. Wherever they put me, I'll be a solid defender."
Kjerstad, sporting an Orioles cap, called his draft experience surreal.
"Being from a little kid, I've been wanting to hear my name called as early as possible in the draft," he said. "That was the goal, to be a big-leaguer. This is one step along the way, one step closer.
"I don't think it's really set in yet. It still feels like a little bit of a dream. Give me a little bit and it'll set in. It's a great feeling for sure."
Kjerstad became the ninth Razorback drafted in the first round, the sixth under Coach Dave Van Horn, and the first since Andrew Benintendi was taken by the Boston Red Sox with the seventh pick in the 2015 draft.
Kjerstad had a hit in all 16 games this season, and hit .448, second in the SEC, and had a team-high .513 on-base percentage, 6 home runs, 20 RBI and a .791 slugging percentage.
According to MLB.com, the suggested bonus value for Kjerstad's position in the draft is in excess of $7.78 million. However, industry insiders believe the Orioles hope to sign Kjerstad for under the slot value and use the excess to help sign a player taken later in the draft.
Kjerstad led a group of three SEC players chosen among the first five picks in the draft, the first time a conference has had a trio taken in the top five. Texas A&M left-handed pitcher Asa Lacey was pick No. 4 by the Kansas City Royals, and Vanderbilt infielder Austin Martin was the No. 5 pick by the Toronto Blue Jays. Georgia right-hander Emerson Hancock went with the sixth pick to the Seattle Mariners.
Kjerstad, a 36th round pick coming out of high school, improved his draft stock astronomically with two full seasons and a partial year in 2020. His career batting average with the Razorbacks was .343, with 34 doubles, 37 home runs and 129 RBI.
He gave major credit to Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn for aiding his development.
"It was huge," Kjerstad said. "He took a chance on me when I was just a high schooler. He gave me an offer.
"I'll always be thankful for that. You know while I was there he took such good care of me, whether it was helping me reach a new level or helping me with whatever I needed. He was always there. He was a father figure there for me, and in my opinion, for all of us who are away from home. There is no other college coach in the country I would want to play for than Dave Van Horn."
Kjerstad joins former teammate Blaine Knight in the Orioles organization. Knight was a third-round pick, the 87th selection overall, by Baltimore in the 2018 draft.
"He actually gave me a call this morning," Kjerstad said. "He wanted to wish me luck. He just told me to enjoy it, embrace the moment, and that 'You're going to remember this day for the rest of your life.' "
Kjerstad said Knight called him again shortly after the Orioles made their pick.
"He was pumped, and I'm pumped, too, to be back on a team with Blaine," he said. "We got along great while I was at Arkansas. We were both talking about playing on the same team again soon and how we're both looking forward to it."
Kjerstad was asked how smoothly he thought the signing process would go.
"Going forward with signing, we'll have to see where it goes," he said. "I'm sure it may be impacted a little bit with every thing that's going on with all this virus stuff. I'm excited to get started on this journey."
Kjerstad was the only current Razorback or Arkansas signee taken in the 37 picks of the first round, which included eight picks in the competitive balance round.
Shortstop Casey Martin and catcher Casey Opitz are both expected to be taken among the final four rounds and 123 picks today. Additionally, a few Razorback signees are likely to be chosen.
1.) DETROIT TIGERS
Spencer Torkelson, 3B Arizona State
2.) BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Heston Kjerstad, OF Arkansas
3.) MIAMI MARLINS
Max Meyer, RHP Minnesota
4.) KANSAS CITY ROYALS
Asa Lacy, LHP Texas A&M
5.) TORONTO BLUE JAYS
Austin Martin, SS Vanderbilt
High on Hogs
Heston Kjerstad is the second-highest drafted Arkansas Razorback in school history.
A look at the nine Razorbacks taken in the first round
PICK PLAYER POSITION MLB TEAM SEASON
1 Jeff King INF Pirates 1986
2 Heston Kjerstad OF Orioles 2020
6 Kevin McReynolds OF Padres 1981
7 Andrew Benintendi OF Red Sox 2015
23 Nick Schmidt LHP Padres 2007
25 Zack Cox 3B Cardinals 2010
27 David Walling RHP Yankees 1999
29 Ryne Stanek RHP Rays 2013
46 Logan Forsythe 3B Padres 2008
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