Braves outfielder Dustin Peterson. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com

Braves outfield prospect Dustin Peterson on the rise

Wait, what’s that?

“It really frees up my hitting,” Peterson said. “I’ve been enjoying it out there. You can just focus on hitting, where when you are in the infield you’ve got to be ready for a bunt. ‘Am I in? Am I back?’

“In the outfield, you are kind of laid-back. It frees up your mind, frees me up for hitting.”

Maybe there’s something to that: Peterson’s increased production in the minor leagues correlated with the position switch. Now the Braves consider him one of their best young players, with general manager John Coppolella calling Peterson “one of the best corner-outfield prospects in the game” after his strong 2016 season at Double-A Mississippi.

Peterson, 22, followed that up with an impressive showing at the Arizona Fall League. The Braves invited him to spring training with the big-league club, and he’s off to a 3-for-9 start in Grapefruit League play.

“I had a good season,” Peterson said. “Going into the fall league I stuck with my approach and coming in to spring I’ve continued on with what I’ve been doing.”

Peterson likely will begin the season at Triple-A Gwinnett. If he continues to produce at the plate he could get a call up this season, depending on how the outfield situation shakes out for the Braves.

Right now one of four big-league veterans projects to be the fourth outfielder: Jace Peterson, Chase d’Arnaud, Emilio Bonifacio and Micah Johnson. Jace Peterson (no relation to Dustin) and d’Arnuad were the primary backups in the infield and outfield for the Braves in 2016.

At some point the Braves could decide Dustin Peterson is ready to take on a role similar to the one Mallex Smith filled last season. The Braves promoted Smith, another young prospect, and allowed him to learn on the job while serving as the extra outfielder.

The Braves acquired Smith, Dustin Peterson, and Jace Peterson from the Padres along with left-hander Max Fried as part of the Justin Upton trade. The Braves traded Smith this past offseason, leaving Dustin Peterson as their top-ranked outfield prospect in the higher levels of the organization.

“He’s an impressive guy,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “He’s put himself on the radar, so to speak, if something happens. He’s a guy you’d be paying attention to and a guy I think you could call up if the need arises.”

Snitker didn’t see much of Peterson during 2016 spring training because, at the time, he was the Gwinnett manager and Peterson was with Mississippi. Peterson played three games with the big-league team during 2016 spring training and went 1-for-5 with a walk.

In 132 games at Mississippi last season Peterson hit .282 with a .343 on-base percentage and 52 extra-base hits, including 12 home runs. During the fall league Peterson went 14-for-38 (.368) with a .352 OBP and one home run among seven extra-base hits.

“You watch what he did, read the game reports, and the kid had a heck of a year,” Snitker said. “He’s a strong guy. And (it’s) just a nice, short, kind of simple swing he’s got.”

Peterson said he and his older brother, D.J., developed the swing while working with their father. The Mariners drafted D.J. out of the University of New Mexico in the first round of the 2013 draft, the same year the Padres selected Dustin in the second round out of Gilbert (Ariz.) High School.

D.J. Peterson finished last season at Triple-A Tacoma.

“Me and my brother, we have very similar swings,” Dustin Peterson said. “We’ve always talked about just keeping it short and sweet and kind of letting our hands take care of the rest.”

Peterson produced much better power numbers in 2016, when he slugged .431 in a pitcher-friendly park compared to .348 with high Single-A Carolina in 2015. He had a .361 slugging percentage with 10 home runs in 126 games for Single-A Fort Wayne in 2014.

Peterson would add value to the Braves as a bench player with pop in his bat.

“If they need help, if they need a guy or something arises, I’m there,” Peterson said. “I’m ready. I’m ready to do it. Spring is kind of showing them I can do it.”

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