Dustin Peterson had a good shot of landing a spot on last season’s opening-day roster. But the Braves outfielder broke his left hand last March, ending his spring training and igniting a disappointing 2017 that made the once-promising prospect’s future seem murky.
Peterson, 23, was limited to 87 games last season, slashing .248/.318./.318 -- significant drop-offs in each category from a breakout 2016 campaign in which he won the organization’s minor league player-of-the-year honors.
He briefly rebounded in July, hitting .353 and being named Braves minor league player of the month. But he hit .220 after the Triple-A All-Star break, not receiving a September call-up and being left unprotected during the Rule 5 draft in December.
That pushed him into a rigorous offseason to recapture his old form. He’s looked comfortable in recent batting practices, even showing some of the raw power that eluded him after returning from his hand injury.
“I’m just trying to show these guys that I’m capable of being on the big-league team,” Peterson said. “I had a great year in Double-A (2016) and started off hot last year. The hand injury kind of put me in a hole. I came back and didn’t quite have the numbers I wanted, but it’s pretty tough coming off hand surgery, coming off an injury like that.
“So I really kicked it into gear this offseason, worked on my strength. I’m the strongest, fastest, biggest I’ve ever been in my life. So no complaints there. I’m healthy and trying to show them what I can do this year as a healthy me.”
He hadn’t had much of an opportunity to showcase improvement in the games. Peterson had gone hitless in five at-bats across the Braves’ six games before he started as the designated hitter Thursday.
“I’ve only had five at-bats, can’t really base anything off that especially in spring training,” he said. “But it’s just fun getting out there whenever I’m given the opportunity. Defense, too. Kind of been having fun out there as well. Just try to make the best of it when I get out there.”
He made the best out of Thursday. Peterson expected to get two at-bats - he got four, hitting a single, double and scoring a run.
“Last year he got hurt in camp, and he was swinging the bat really well and we were excited about him,” Snitker said. “Then he broke his hand. ... He got back into the league late, but I don’t think he ever had the strength in his hand. That was the one thing we really liked about him was his hands, and it was good to get him into camp because he, like we said, we were excited about this kid.”
“We’re hoping with a year under his belt now, and the hand not being a problem, getting his strength back, we can get him back to where he was a year ago.”
Peterson understands the situation: There is a surplus of players, young and old, the team wants to see, especially in the early going. He’s competing against Preston Tucker and friend Lane Adams for a spot in the major league outfield, in addition to facing the inevitability of top prospect Ronald Acuna securing a permanent spot next to center fielder Ender Inciarte.
“We got a lot of depth, a lot of guys that need to get at-bats,” he said. “Yeah, I’d love to have 15, 20 at-bats right now. But I’m just taking what they give me. … They’re just excited that I’m healthy and I got my strength back. Like I said, I really worked this offseason to get that back. I’m full-go now. The swing feels good. All that matters is getting at-bats and reps here in spring.”
He intends to make the most of what plentiful or few chances he’s given. Peterson, who was a third baseman in the Padres system and moved to the outfield after a trade to the Braves in December 2014, said he’s willing to pick up third again if it helps his odds of making the roster; though for now, he’s just a corner outfielder.
“Shoot, I’ll play wherever they want me to play,” Peterson said. “They say ‘hey, go back to third base’ and I’m willing.”