KISSIMMEE, Fla. — The last time Chase d’Arnaud had played first base, he estimates, he was 12 years old. Even then, he’d only done it, maybe, once.
But two days ago, the Atlanta Braves utility man was told to get a first basemen’s glove, and there he was during Saturday’s first full-squad workout at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex, fielding grounders at the position with Freddie Freeman.
“Just like anything else. I went and played center field and learned that and I did well,” D’Arnaud said. “I assume I’ll be the same way at first base. I don’t know if that’s being overly-confident.”
It’s all about versatility when it comes to the Braves’ bench, with D’Arnaud and Jace Peterson giving manager Brian Snitker a pair of Swiss Army knives that can man multiple spots in the infield and outfield.
“It’s almost essential, anymore, to have that,” Snitker said. “Those are two pretty good players right there that are very versatile that can run and play multiple positions. That’s big for what we’re doing.”
Last season, d’Arnaud played 21 games at shortstop, 19 at third base, 13 in the outfield and another 10 at second. Peterson, who has primarily been the Braves’ starting second baseman the past two years, saw time there (87 games), along with 16 in the outfield and another at third.
And, yes, d’Arnaud is adding first base to his repertoire. That could aid Atlanta, given there is no natural backup to Freeman (Nick Markakis played one game at first last season), and with the All-Star missing games this spring to suit up for Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
“I have enough confidence in myself and the coaches that I know I’d be ready to play first base by the beginning of the season,” d’Arnaud said. “Just like anything else. I went and played (outfield) and learned that and I did well.”
If there was a stigma surrounding the “utility player” label, it’s fading. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist is playing on a four-year, $56 million deal with the Cubs and Josh Harrison inked a four-year, $27.3 million extension from the Pirates last April.
Versatility has turned into a commodity that can extend a player’s value and career.
“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,” Peterson said. “You see it with guys all the time, Zobrist, I mean he plays all kinds of positions, Josh Harrison plays all types of positions. That’s just a couple of guys that have recently signed huge contracts.
“So for me, I like the fact that I can play different positions and kind of just lust let my athleticism roam.”
That buy-in to the impact of a utility player was even seen on Peterson’s own roster with Sean Rodriguez — who plays every infield and outfield position — inking a two-year, $11.5 million deal in November. It’s also going to be that much more important to Peterson having a substantial role on this team.
The starting second base now seemingly belongs to Brandon Phillips, the three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glover, who Atlanta acquired last weekend after it was discovered Rodriguez would need rotator cuff surgery.
“He’s a guy who I grew up watching for a long time, so he’s coming here to play second base and I’m looking forward to learning from him and playing with him,” Peterson said. “For me, whatever my role is on this team, I’ll be ready to go.”
The Braves’ outfield appears to be a tough nut to crack given that Matt Kemp (no fewer than 150 games since ’13), Nick Markakis (314 games played in two seasons in Atlanta) and Ender Inciarte (five games missed after his May return from a hamstring injury in ’16) rarely take a day off. The trio is so durable that the Braves were willing to trade away Mallex Smith, underscoring that they don’t need a dedicated fourth outfielder.
What they need is options, not bench pieces that have limited spots they can play in, and d’Arnaud and Peterson are not only doing it, they’re embracing the role.
“So I know I can go out there and play second or wherever I can go play every day,” Peterson said. “So for me, I know I’m just excited about it and if I need to give a guy a rest day or whatever it may be and play different positions, that’s fine with me. I’m ready to go.”