Many of the prospects in our list of the Detroit Tigers’ top 30 prospects for 2019 were not in the organization at this time last year. The team selected pitcher Casey Mize (No. 1), outfielder Parker Meadows (10), Kody Clemens (13), and Kingston Liniak (27) in the 2018 MLB draft. They also acquired Willi Castro (No. 12) and Logan Shore (21) in midseason trades for Leonys Martin and Mike Fiers, respectively. That is six of the team’s top 30 prospects — not too shabby considering the team ran out of surefire major league talent to send away.
But wait! There’s a seventh prospect that general manager Al Avila picked up late in 2017, and he may be even better than his No. 26 ranking on our list suggests. In fact, MLB Pipeline ranks outfielder Dustin Peterson as the No. 11 prospect in the Tigers’ farm system. Peterson is 6’2 , weighs 210 pounds, and has a plethora of solid tools, but no single stand-out tool. So why does MLB Pipeline rank him so high, and why are we a bit lower on him?
Peterson is a 24-year-old corner outfielder whom the Tigers claimed off of waivers from the Atlanta Braves when they tried to sneak him off their 40-man roster after bringing him up to the majors in 2018. He was originally drafted in the second round of the 2013 MLB draft by the San Diego Padres, and already made his major league debut on May 28, 2018 with the Braves. Before that, he spent two years in the minors in the Padres farm system as a third baseman, but was then traded to Atlanta in the 2014 Justin Upton deal along with Max Fried, Mallex Smith, and Jace Peterson. In Atlanta, Peterson began to play left and right field.
Peterson faced adversity in the Braves farm system, but overcame it and came into his own. In 2015, Peterson hit .314/.392/.448 in his first 120 plate appearances before getting injured in a bus accident that ultimately derailed his season, as he posted a sub-.300 on-base percentage the rest of the way. That didn’t stop Peterson from a resurgence in 2016, a season in which he hit .282/.343/.431 with a 124 wRC+ and 12 home runs in 578 plate appearances. He won the Atlanta Braves’ 2016 minor league player of the year award for his efforts that season.
Unfortunately, Peterson suffered another injury in 2017, as he underwent surgery on his left hand. Instead of seeing major league playing time in 2017, he missed half the year before struggling immensely in triple-A, hitting only one home run in 346 plate appearances and posting an 80 wRC+. Despite his struggles, Peterson entered the 2018 season as the No. 15 prospect in the Atlanta Braves top-tier farm system. While he was claimed too late to play at all in Detroit’s system, Peterson experienced at least somewhat of a bounce-back season last year, hitting .268/.324/.406 with 11 home runs in 442 plate appearances, and a 107 wRC+.
Dustin Peterson is a jack-of-all-trades player. His scouting grades from both FanGraphs and MLB Pipeline have him at a 45 or 50 (major league average) in all five categories. Peterson is capable of hitting for contact, hitting for power, stealing a couple of bases, and playing decent defense in a corner outfield position. Pipeline is the highest of the bunch on him, especially after a resurgent 2018 season.
At his best, [Peterson] mitigates a reasonable amount of strikeouts with a fair walk rate, especially given his power potential. An infielder originally, he was moved to left field and he’s a whole lot more natural there than he was at third base, projecting as an average defender with a fringy arm, one who also saw considerable time in right field in 2018.
One other thing Peterson has going for him is his age and experience. Peterson is very, very close to reaching his prospect floor as a fourth outfielder. Given his well-rounded profile, it wouldn’t be too shocking if he earned a bit more playing time. While he does not have exceptional power, Comerica Park is a bit easier on right-handed hitters (especially to the pull side), and Peterson also has the speed to leg out extra-base hits.
Remember when I said Peterson is a jack-of-all-trades? That’s his primary downside. He doesn’t have an elite tool, so if the hit tool doesn’t work out, there is nothing else to keep him around in the majors long-term. He isn’t quick enough to play center field long-term, and his arm isn’t strong enough to hack it in right field. As a left field only player, he has to hit to create any value. Opinions on that potential are mixed, but FanGraphs summed up the conundrum nicely prior to last season.
Peterson has improved his stride direction and unlocked more of his natural pull power in the process. It’s pull-only power but he’s short to the ball, creates good extension through contact, and can go down and get balls down in the zone and still make authoritative contact. That there seems to be a substantive mechanical change here is reason for optimism that Peterson’s 2016 is the new normal and not some one-year mirage. The offensive tools aren’t loud enough to project him as a first-division regular or better, but I think he’s going to be a solid big-league piece.
Peterson’s strikeout and walk percentages have also trended the wrong way in the minor leagues. Whereas he struck out in 17.3 percent and walked in 7.8 percent of his at-bats in 2016, he struck out in 21.7 percent and walked in only 6.8 percent of his 2018 at-bats. For context, Mike Gerber walked in 8.5 percent of his 47 plate appearances for the Tigers (he also struck out in an astonishingly high 44.7 percent of those appearances, but that’s beside the point).
Projected Team: Detroit Tigers
Peterson should absolutely be in Detroit at some point this season. But to start the year there, he will have to either perform very well in spring training, or replace an injured player to have a chance to make the team’s Opening Day roster. The team is currently projected to start Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones, and Nicholas Castellanos in its three outfield spots, while former Rule 5 selection Victor Reyes and veteran Mikie Mahtook are expected to be on the bench. That said, Reyes posted -1.0 fWAR and walked in only 2.3 percent of his 219 plate appearances in 2018, and Mahtook spent more games in Toledo (72) than he did in Detroit (67). It’s not a question of whether Peterson will make it to Detroit in 2019, it’s a question of when. When he does, it’s up to him whether he wants to stay.