By Shannon Drayer
Mariners top draft pick DJ Peterson learned a lot in his first few months in professional baseball.
He learned to play off the line more to increase his range at third base, a position where some believed he would not be able to stick. He learned that the day-in, day-out physical demands were much greater than they were in college.
His biggest learning, however, came at the plate.
“I learned not to guess,” he said with a slight laugh during a phone interview from his home in Arizona Tuesday afternoon. “I learned not to guess because I was guessing slider when I got hit.”
Peterson, who was selected by the Mariners with the 12th pick in the 2013 draft, made his professional debut on June 19 and earned a quick promotion to Single-A Clinton after hitting .312/.382/.532/.914 in 29 games with Everett. He had similar success at Clinton and picked up Midwest Player of the Week honors on Aug. 12. Ten days later he would see his season come to an an end.
In the third inning of the LumberKings’ game against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Peterson stepped to the plate. Having struck out in the first inning and now down down 0-1, he went over his plan in his head.
“Just kind of knowing the count, knowing the situation, knowing what he threw the at-bat before and the guy before … He went fastball away, so I didn’t think he would come with another fastball,” Peterson recalled.
With the sun setting and the light not perfect, Peterson didn’t see the ball well out of the hand of Timber Rattlers right-hander Jorge Lopez. He realized too late that the pitch was not breaking.
“He just lost control with his next pitch,” Peterson said. “It just ran up and in and I couldn’t quite get out of the way, but I thought for sure he was going to come with a slider on that next one.”
Instead, Lopez came with a fastball that hit Peterson in the jaw. Tests would reveal an open fracture of the left mandible, which would require two surgeries to repair. His first professional season was over. Plans to play in the Arizona Fall League were scrapped and Peterson’s offseason workout schedule was altered to help him regain the nearly 30 pounds he lost when his jaw was wired shut for a month after his second surgery.
This was hardly the offseason he had envisioned.
“Obviously, the pain was not very much fun but having your mouth wired shut wasn’t very fun either. The not being able to eat was the toughest thing,” said Peterson, who was forced to endure a liquid diet. “Blended spaghetti, whatever your imagination can [come up with] I am sure I tried to blend it and eat it.”
Those days are behind him now. The brackets came off a month ago and he enjoyed his first meal of french fries. Since then he has gained all but 10 of the pounds he lost. He has been working out daily with a trainer and most importantly, he has stepped back into the batting cage. If there were any reservations about facing live pitching once again, they disappeared quickly.
“It takes one pitch,” he said. “Everyone thinks that you would be very scared to get back in and hit but it is something you have been doing your whole life and injuries happen. It was a freak accident. It literally took one pitch and I was good to go. The confidence was back.”
While he missed the final two weeks of the season, Peterson hopes he made a strong impression in his first two months in the organization.
“I was just glad that I could show the Mariners that I was a quality pick at 12 and that I could hit for not only power and RBIs, but I could also hit for a good average and that I could stick at third base,” he said, “that they didn’t make a mistake by having me stick at third base rather than moving me to first.”
Peterson appeared to be on a fast track for advancement in the organization before getting hit. Work was put in at third base and by all accounts progress was made. This is important to both the player and the organization as it would give the Mariners the option of moving Kyle Seager to second if it is a position Peterson can ably field.
Offensively, Peterson showed everything (although he was not comfortable with his strikeout numbers) that you would want to see from your No. 1 pick. Baseball America would appear to agree, rating him as the best pure hitter and the second-best power hitter from the 2013 draft.
That accolade has not earned him a break this fall, however. At least not until Dec. 30, when he and his younger brother Dustin – who was drafted by the Padres in the second round this year – will treat the family to a trip to Cabo San Lucas. For now, he works out daily with strength and speed coaches. He runs stadiums and stairs with his father and hits in the cages each night with Dustin.
“I want to get faster, stronger and even quicker than I was before I got hurt. That is my goal,” he said. “I want to come back to spring training and show the Mariners, you know, I missed the fall league, but this guy is for real, he wants it. He got hurt but he wants it even more than he did before.”