When the Marlins traded center fielder Cameron Maybin to San Diego over the winter, many were confused by the club's motivations for making the move. Not only had Maybin shown considerable potential without a substantial salary, they didn't even have a great internal alternative waiting in the wings like, say, Desmond Jennings or Mike Trout.
Then, when people learned that the team would be moving Chris Coghlan to center to take over for Maybin, it only seemed like the Marlins were compounding an already legitimate issue. Coghlan spent most of 2010 as a left fielder after being an infielder for his entire minor league career, so the Marlins were kind of running deaf through a concert with this one. After the Marlins announced the move, Matt Meyers wrote in a piece for ESPN.com that, "The Marlins' outfield defense is shaping up to be pretty ugly in 2011. That's not a recipe for winning on the margins."
But for all of our clamoring about how Coghlan would struggle in center field and the Marlins should have kept Maybin, one part of this entire equation was, and still is now, being overlooked: the Marlins did actually have a legitimate internal replacement for Maybin. The problem, though, is that he's still toiling in Triple-A. My friends, meet Mr. Bryan Petersen.
Now, to be clear, if your memories of Bryan Petersen only last through last season, you're going to need a refresher. Because this guy made some major improvements as a player over the winter, and he's slowly playing himself into consideration for legitimate playing time at some point in the next few months. So let me introduce you.
Coming into this season, Petersen wasn't really considered a major prospect. He's 25, he hit .255/.332/.354 in 91 games at Triple-A in 2010, and John Sickels ranked him as Florida's No. 19 prospect while wondering, "Can he overcome blah year in Triple-A to reinstate status as possible fourth outfielder?"
Well, John, you've gotten your answer. And in a huge way. Petersen's shown up this year and improved in practically every facet of his game while playing at the same level. You want more power? He's doing it. You want less strikeouts? How about more walks? Hell, why don't we toss in an improved BABIP as well? Because right now, he's doing these things.
At the moment, Petersen is flashing a .335/.431/.557 line, making him one of the PCL's most dominant hitters thus far in the season. But how he's doing it is far more important than the line in general. Petersen's never hit for huge power, so a strong strikeout-to-walk ratio was always a hallmark of his offensive profile early in his pro career. But last season he saw those numbers take a major dip, and his prospect status lost a good bit of its luster in the process. Without major power or speed, Petersen was always the kind of guy that needed to show strong on-base skills- when he wasn't last season, it wasn't easy to envision him as an effective MLB player.
But this season, he's shown up as a totally different hitter. He's blown up his walk rate from 9.2% to 13.9%, and he's showing that it's not merely a function of being less aggressive, too, as he's lowered his strikeout rate as well, from 17.1% to 12.9%. The results have been staggering. Not only is he walking more and striking out less, but he's seeing better pitches to hit and taking advantage of that, as he's pushed his ISO from just .099 last season to over .200 this season.
Before the season, if you sat back and made a checklist of what Petersen could do to improve his stock as a baseball player, at this point you could probably check off nearly every one of those things so far this season. This spring, most people viewed Petersen as a fringe prospect with fourth outfielder potential given his defensive versatility and previously solid performance. Now, I think you have to consider the possibility that he hits enough to be a solid everyday player- he may be below-average defensive in center, but he's not likely to be much worse than Coghlan already is, and in the corners he should be able to play above-average defense.
At this point, Petersen may not get his shot in Florida- if the Marlins like Coghlan in center, they may be able to stick with their current outfield alignment for the next couple years. That could allow Petersen to take the role of fourth outfielder, where he'd likely thrive, but I think that you have to consider that he deserves an opportunity to play regularly somewhere.
If the Marlins are still fancying themselves as contenders come July and they're out looking for some additional talent, trying to pry Petersen away as a smaller part of the deal could end up being a major steal.