Braves’ Peterson looks only at the positives of multi-position role

Braves utility man Jace Peterson was among the earliest arriving position players at spring training. The former starting second baseman said he’s ready to play anywhere the Braves need him. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)
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Braves utility man Jace Peterson was among the earliest arriving position players at spring training. The former starting second baseman said he’s ready to play anywhere the Braves need him. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Jace Peterson has played 200 complete games at second base over the past two seasons and been the Braves’ primary starter at the position for a majority of that period.

But that changes now with Brandon Phillips on the team. Peterson knows it and said he embraces the change.

“He’s a guy I grew up watching for a long time,” he said of Phillips, 35, a four-time former Gold Glove Award winner just acquired from the Reds in a trade. “He’s coming here to play second base. I’m looking forward to learning from him and playing with him. So for me, whatever my role is on this team I’ll be ready to go, and just pick whoever’s brain I can.”

Peterson becomes a utility player, the role he began transitioning into last season. He’s ready for the challenge of backing up several positions — chief among them: second base, third base, center field — and being ready to fill in for several games at a time at any of them.

“I’m just going to go out and play baseball,” Peterson said before Saturday’s first Braves full-squad spring training workout. “Whatever I need to do, I’m going to do. Whether it’s play third, short, second, first — wherever I need to play, I’m going to go play. … Practice everywhere. Take ground balls all over the infield, take fly balls in the outfield. I don’t have too much of a problem with it. I’m looking forward to the challenge, looking forward to moving around the diamond and just excited to get going.”

Braves manager Brian Snitker praised Peterson for how he’s handled the change and talked with him about how versatility has never been more important than in today’s game. Particularly on teams that carry one less bench player and one extra reliever, like the Braves did most of last season and plan to do again this year.

“He’s got a great attitude,” Snitker said. “He’s asking me, like, when (can he work at various positions). We’re going to have a lot of times to get him a lot of reps in the outfield. A guy like that can play a long time in this league, make a lot of money and play a lot of years and be a very valuable asset. Guys like that are a sprained ankle away from being an everyday player.”

Peterson started 137 games at second base for the Braves as a rookie in 2015 and returned from an early season minor-league demotion in 2016 to get by far the most starts on the team among the seven who played second base in 2016. Others players got hurt or struggled, and Peterson regained his job.

He impressed initially after his return from Triple-A, batting .359 with a .972 OPS in 21 games from June 10-July 2. But he hit only .232 with a .677 OPS in 73 games the rest of the season, and the Braves decided to add a proven veteran in the offseason to be the primary second baseman until prospect Ozzie Albies was ready.

They signed versatile veteran Sean Rodriguez for the job, but Rodriguez was hurt in a Jan. 28 car crash and had shoulder surgery last week that likely will keep him out the entire season. So the Braves regrouped and traded for Phillips, a three-time former All-Star who hit .291 with 11 home runs and a .736 OPS in 2016 for the Reds.

Phillips is expected to handle second base until Albies is ready, which could be some point this season.

Meanwhile, Peterson and Chase d’Arnaud are penciled in for two of the Braves’ bench spots, each capable of playing multiple positions in the infield and outfield. Peterson will get work in center field this spring and could be a backup at any of the infield positions.

Asked about the importance of being able to play several positions including center field, Peterson said, “I think it’s huge. I think the way the game has transformed in this day and age, the more you do the better chance you have of being able to play for a long time. You see it with guys like (Ben) Zobrist, he’s able to play all types of positions. Josh Harrison plays all types of positions.

“That’s just a couple of guys who recently signed huge contracts. So for me, I like the fact that I can play different positions and just kind of let my athleticism roam.”

Snitker said that’s the direction baseball has gone in recent years, and there’s no sign of the trend abating. If anything, it’s becoming stronger.

“Playing all over the diamond,” Snitker said. “I think that’s kind of the way we’re going to be raising them in the minor leagues now because the industry is getting like that, where you’re not going to have just a guy playing left field or right field, you’re going to want guys moving around the diamond and experiencing that. Because wherever the opening is up here is where they’re going to play. It can do nothing but maximize how we’re going to use you and the benefit to a club to be able to do that.”

Peterson said, “I know I can play every day. I can go out there and play second, short — wherever I need to play to play every day. So for me, I’m just excited about it. If I need to give a guy here and there a rest for a day and play different positions, that’s fine. I’m ready to go.

“I think most comfortable for me is just the middle of the diamond, where it’s second, short, center field — that’s kind of what I’ve done for my whole life. But wherever I need to play, I’ll get used to it and be just fine.”