With Kjerstad’s promotion, prospect list at Norfolk becomes more crowded for Orioles

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After 3,343 plate appearances in the minors, Josh Lester became the latest unexpected Orioles contributor as his first major league hit drove in two runs in Sunday’s 8-3 win at San Francisco. 

The 29-year-old Ryan O’Hearn plated a run in Friday’s 3-2 win over the Giants, which came two weeks after his dramatic three-run homer in an eventual extra-inning victory in Toronto. 

Released by the Yankees just a couple weeks ago, Aaron Hicks has performed at a high level since being signed to fill in for injured center fielder Cedric Mullins.  

You always need some surprise names to offer a boost navigating a 162-game journey, but as the Orioles enter summer with a postseason spot firmly on the radar, it’s natural to look at one of baseball’s top farm systems and wonder who could be primed to contribute over the latter half of the season. Of course, such prospects could also find themselves as part of a swap for established major league talent with the trade deadline just under two months away. 

The former sentiment was only reinforced by the news that 2020 first-round pick Heston Kjerstad, 24, is being promoted to Triple-A Norfolk, which is very encouraging since the University of Arkansas product is still a few days out from the one-year anniversary of his first professional game. The power-hitting outfielder — who’s also seen playing time at first base — getting his baseball career back on track after a lengthy recovery from myocarditis remains one of the organization’s best developments of 2023, and it’s worth noting the timing of the move being similar to when Gunnar Henderson was promoted to Triple-A Norfolk last June. 

In other words, it’s not out of the question that Kjerstad could arrive in the majors later this season, especially if he finds International League pitching to be as inviting as it was playing at Double-A Bowie. In 206 plate appearances for the Baysox this season, the lefty-swinging Kjerstad batted .310 with 11 homers, 10 doubles, three triples, 15 walks, 31 strikeouts, and a .960 on-base plus slugging percentage. Of course, there’s a reason why Kjerstad was the second overall pick three years ago, but there were no guarantees he would even get back to this point after dealing with substantial health concerns the last couple years. 

Several other Norfolk players — including five other top 100 MLB.com prospects — have the same goal and will tell you it’s easier said than done to both get the call to Baltimore and stay there with expectations having changed markedly over the last calendar year. Current Tides players to have appeared with the Orioles this season include top pitching prospects Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall, infielder Joey Ortiz, and outfielder Kyle Stowers. 

Given the Orioles’ room for improvement on the pitching front and the disappointing start to his major league career that resulted in last month’s demotion, all eyes remain on the 23-year-old Rodriguez, who pitched six innings of one-hit ball against Gwinnett on Saturday. Unfortunately, he also walked five batters, which won’t quell calls for improved fastball command to succeed at the major league level. Still, there is so much to like about Rodriguez’s potential, and one can look at the current major league rotation for examples of young pitchers who found their footing after failing initially and making adjustments in the minors. 

Hall’s path back to the majors appears a little more complicated as he’s posted a mediocre 4.89 ERA in nine starts for Norfolk. The manner in which the Orioles have managed his workload and his propensity for issuing walks leave one to wonder whether the 24-year-old will eventually settle into a 2023 relief role for Baltimore as he did last September. 

On the hitting side, the biggest names continuing to garner attention are outfielder Colton Cowser and infielder Jordan Westburg, who both rank among MLB.com’s top 50 prospects. Having just returned over the weekend from a recent quad injury, Cowser may have been in line for a call-up had he been healthy when Mullins hurt his groin last week. The 23-year-old and fifth overall pick in 2021 has remained in center field at the Triple-A level and is batting .347 with eight homers, nine doubles, one triple, 37 walks, and 41 strikeouts in 186 plate appearances for the Tides. General manager Mike Elias spoke last week about wanting a healthy Cowser to get back in a groove after his recent absence, but it could be awfully tempting to make a move if the young outfielder continues to hit and incumbent options struggle in Mullins’ absence. 

That brings us to Westburg, who has to be wondering what else he has to do to get the call as he’ll pass the one-year mark playing for Norfolk later this week. The 24-year-old who plays three infield positions and has also received some starts at the corner outfield spots has 30 extra-base hits and a .988 OPS in 235 plate appearances this season. Having 648 plate appearances with the Tides dating back to last June, Westburg has batted .286 with 33 homers, 39 doubles, four triples, 122 runs batted in, 14 stolen bases, and a .913 OPS. 

Of course, there are only so many major league jobs to go around, something Stowers has learned in his Orioles stints that haven’t been helped by his dramatic struggles playing so sparingly. Unlike a couple years ago when the major league roster was littered with placeholders having no future in Baltimore, the Orioles are now prioritizing winning and view a prospect’s potential promotion through the lens of whether he’s an upgrade over the current player filling that role. In most cases, you prefer not to call up a prospect for a bench job — though someone like Ortiz could fit that description in the long run — so it isn’t quite as simple as a prospect putting up good Triple-A numbers and Elias jettisoning someone from the 26- and 40-man rosters. 

Still, Kjerstad’s arrival in Norfolk reinforces how crowded the Triple-A roster is becoming, which is a good problem to have. It’ll be up to Elias to determine which prospects are going to be keepers and who might be better suited helping the contending Orioles pull off the right trade between now and the Aug. 1 deadline. 

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