A whole new ballgame for some players

Originally Published: March 8, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The equipment trucks won't be leaving Arizona for another three weeks. But for several players in the Cactus League, every day is moving day.

It's tough enough changing positions in the minor leagues. The learning curve is considerably shorter in the majors, where every gaffe, misstep or brain cramp can make you an instant punch line on "SportsCenter."

The following players showed up at spring training with open minds and a willingness to arrive early, stay late and seek advice from all corners of the clubhouse. In some cases, they also brought different gloves.

Here are seven big leaguers going to school in the desert this spring and hoping that a change can, indeed, do them good.

Mariners' Ichiro Suzuki, moving from right field to center

Center field
Seattle Mariners

Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
GM AVG HR RBI R OPS
957 .331 61 359 671 .814
It's inaccurate to characterize Ichiro as "new" to center field. He played about a quarter of his games in Japan at the position, and dunked his toe in the water with a 39-game test run in Seattle last season. Now, after winning six straight Gold Gloves in right, he's officially the man in the middle.

Ichiro's speed, baseball instincts and ability to get good reads and quick jumps make him a natural fit in center. He also has an extraordinarily strong throwing arm for a position populated by the likes of Johnny Damon and Juan Pierre. Combine Ichiro with right fielder Jose Guillen, who is in the final stages of his recovery from shoulder surgery, and not many opponents will attempt to go from first to third against Seattle this season.

Of course, the Ichiro-to-center story has been eclipsed by concerns over the man's future in Seattle. Like Andruw Jones, Torii Hunter, Mike Cameron, Milton Bradley, Aaron Rowand and Eric Byrnes, he is eligible for free agency in November. Given Ichiro's gate appeal and icon status, it's hard to envision the Mariners letting him walk. But if Ichiro does leave town, the ability to play both right and center so skillfully can only enhance his marketability.

Cubs' Alfonso Soriano, from left field to center

Chicago manager Lou Piniella already is tired of giving daily updates on Soriano. On the other hand, it beats answering those annoying media queries on why Mark Prior's velocity has dipped to 85 mph.

Alfonso Soriano
AP Photo/Morry GashAlfonso Soriano, left, has had a slow start to the season as he learns to play center field.
Most scouts think Soriano has the speed, athleticism and desire to be a passable center fielder. Piniella says the transition should be easier than Soriano's move to left field last season because Soriano is so accustomed to watching the game unfold from the middle of the field as a second baseman.

Through the first week of spring training games, Soriano made all the routine plays. The big test will come when he has to cope with the Wrigley Field winds and the responsibility of chasing down balls in the gap and playing traffic cop amid all that crowd noise.

For what it's worth, Piniella and Soriano have struck up a nice rapport, thanks in part to the manager's ability to speak fluent Spanish. Piniella loves Soriano's positive attitude, competitive demeanor and (most importantly) tremendous bat speed. Soriano hit two ropes to the opposite field Sunday against the White Sox. If he carries that approach into the regular season, he'll be scary.

Royals' Mark Teahen, from third base to right field

Mark Teahen
Teahen
Teahen really asserted himself last season, posting a .974 combined on base-slugging percentage after the All-Star break. But the Royals are committed to Alex Gordon at third base, and they've ticketed their other top hitting prospect, Billy Butler, for left field in 2008 even though most people think he's better suited to a DH role.

Teahen isn't a burner at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, but he was fast enough to steal 10 bases in 10 attempts last season. His throwing arm is also a plus despite shoulder surgery in September.

"He's a big guy, so you don't necessarily see him as that athletic," Royals manager Buddy Bell said. "But he's probably our best baserunner. Instinctively, he's as good as anybody we have. I think at some point he's going to be able to play any one of the three outfield positions, along with each corner of the infield."

Teahen made a fine leaping catch at the wall in a Cactus League game against San Diego on Monday. He might take some grounders at third as the spring progresses. But unless the Royals trade him, he can pretty much wave goodbye to the position.

A's Mike Piazza, from catcher to designated hitter

Piazza would like to continue catching, but he's 38, so the move to DH is in his best interests. Frank Thomas parlayed the Oakland DH job into a two-year, $18 million deal with Toronto, so there's a financial incentive. Piazza also has 419 career homers and is still in terrific shape, so it's conceivable he could stick around long enough to make a run at 500.

Contrary to popular opinion, the shift to designated hitter entails more than just sitting around doing crossword puzzles and monitoring The Weather Channel.

"If he hits 30 [home runs], I wouldn't be surprised."
-- A scout, forecasting Mike Piazza's output

"There's a learning curve as to how to keep your body alert during games," said Oakland assistant general manager David Forst.

Piazza has a .304 batting average in 191 career at-bats at DH, so he already has a clue how to go about it. Will he approach Thomas' 39 homers and 114 RBIs of a season ago? Probably not.

But as one scout observed, "If he hits 30, I wouldn't be surprised."

Brewers' Bill Hall, from shortstop to center field

Hall is both a versatile and a selfless player. When teammate J.J. Hardy went down with an ankle injury last season, Hall moved from third base to shortstop. Now, Hardy is back in the lineup and Corey Koskie is out with post-concussion syndrome, so the Brewers have the option of shifting Hall back to third. But management doesn't want to block the path of third-base prospect Ryan Braun, so Hall is doing the Robin Yount thing.

Center field
Milwaukee Brewers

Profile
CAREER STATISTICS
GM AVG HR RBI R OPS
491 .267 67 225 239 .801
After making a four-year, $24 million investment in Hall, the Brewers have every intention of letting him stay put.

"He's done whatever we've asked of him, and we have to be fair with him," GM Doug Melvin said. "The fair thing to do is try to let him focus on this position and learn it."

Hall recently took part in a drill the Brewers use with their minor league outfielders -- running on a treadmill while a red laser dot is pointed at his cap. The purpose of the exercise is conditioning outfielders to keep their heads still while they're sprinting in pursuit of fly balls.

Hall also is trying to break the habit of getting too low in his crouch, as low as infielders do, and he's working diligently on his footwork with the help of Brewers coach Ed Sedar.

"It feels natural out there," Hall said.

Hall, 27, amassed more extra base hits than Chase Utley and Justin Morneau last season, so he gives Milwaukee an abundance of offense in center field. The bad news is that the Brewers will give back some of that production with the Craig Counsell-Tony Graffanino tandem at third.

Giants' Rich Aurilia, from a utility role to first base

After playing Simon Cowell in San Francisco's "Giants Idol" competition, Aurilia is ready to embrace his role as the team's primary first baseman. It remains to be seen how often manager Bruce Bochy will work left-handed hitters Mark Sweeney and Ryan Klesko into the mix.

"I'm used to having a small glove in the middle infield. I went to this big one, and that was the hardest thing -- just being able to find the ball. Once I got that down, I felt I was OK."
-- Rich Aurilia

Aurilia, a shortstop for most of his career, tried first base last season in Cincinnati on a lark and wound up starting 47 games at the position.

His biggest adjustment?

"I'm used to having a small glove in the middle infield," Aurilia said. "I went to this big one, and that was the hardest thing -- just being able to find the ball. Once I got that down, I felt I was OK."

Six-time Gold Glove winner J.T. Snow is in camp tutoring Aurilia on the nuances of first-base play, and Aurilia is enough of a pro that he should be adequate defensively. The more pressing question is, how will he perform at the plate? Aurilia's .443 career slugging percentage is OK for a middle infielder hitting second, but not so impressive for a first baseman batting fifth.

Angels' Brandon Wood, from shortstop to third base

Wood, the Angels' top minor league prospect, has elicited lots of Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez comparisons because: (A) he's so good, and (B) he's so rangy. At 6-foot-3 and 185 pounds, he's a growing boy.

The Angels are well stocked at shortstop with Orlando Cabrera and Erick Aybar, who'll return to Triple-A Salt Lake this season to work on his plate discipline. Things aren't quite as set at third base, where Chone Figgins is the projected starter and Dallas McPherson might miss the entire season after having two vertebrae in his back fused together.

Wood is only 22 years old, and he struck out 149 times last season for Double-A Arkansas, so the Angels can afford to send him to Salt Lake to begin the season and see how things evolve. Wood experienced an "oops" moment when he accidentally stepped on a fungo bat during a fielding drill Tuesday and rolled his ankle, but he should return by the weekend.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer