A year ago, Carlos Pena was washed up.
With nowhere else to turn, he accepted a non-roster invitation to Spring Training from Tampa Bay -- his sixth team since Texas made him its first-round pick in the 1998 Draft. After sneaking onto the Opening Day roster, he won the starting job at first base and never looked back, ending the season in possession of numerous franchise records.
Nobody on earth expected a 28-year-old journeyman to outhit every offseason acquisition from 2006-07. After all, that kind of breakthrough happens once in a blue moon.
Timing and opportunity go a long way in determining whether players sink or swim in new surroundings. Imagine if Tampa Bay had better first basemen to choose from than Greg Norton and Jonny Gomes at the time. Who knows? Maybe Pena would still be washed up.
Beyond that, all the usual factors apply, such as ballpark effects, supporting cast and league.
Last season, location changes led to big jumps by Ted Lilly, Jose Guillen, Kevin Gregg, Gil Meche, Rafael Soriano, Brian Bannister and several others.
Which movers and shakers benefited most this past offseason?
10. Troy Percival, RP, Rays: Percival's road back from retirement garnered so little attention last season that you had to wonder whether anyone outside of St. Louis even noticed his 1.80 ERA and 0.85 WHIP in 34 games. The anonymity will dissipate this season, as he'll serve as the primary closer on an improved Rays team.
9. Matt Garza, SP, Rays: Also benefiting from the move to Tampa Bay was Garza, who's no doubt ready to turn the page on what became an increasingly sour relationship with the Twins. His public objections to some of the club's roster decisions -- particularly his spending half of 2007 down on the farm while rotation spots went to the well-traveled Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz -- probably factored into Minnesota's decision to move him. Don't be surprised if the change of scenery results in an All-Star bid.
8. Johan Santana, SP, Mets: It's hard to imagine Santana improving much, as the two-time Cy Young Award winner is widely considered the best pitcher in baseball. Still, all the ingredients are there for a 20-win season in Queens, where he'll take the mound at spacious Shea Stadium, receive tons of run support and face pitchers instead of powerful designated hitters.
7. Michael Bourn, OF, Astros: Having already drafted Bourn in 2003, Astros general manager Ed Wade pounced at the opportunity to re-acquire him in exchange for closer Brad Lidge. While the slap-hitting center fielder won't ever be accused of swinging for the fences, he's fast enough to make a run at 50 steals right away.
6. George Sherrill, RP, Orioles: Acquired from Seattle in the Erik Bedard blockbuster, Sherrill is suddenly Baltimore's best option out of the bullpen. Don't be surprised if the left-hander notches 25-30 saves as the club's primary closer.
5. Miguel Tejada, SS, Astros: Nothing says "perfect timing" like escaping a rebuilding team. With Lance Berkman, Carlos Lee and Hunter Pence protecting him and the short left-field porch at Minute Maid Park looming as an inviting target, a return to 30 homers and 100 RBIs isn't out of the question for the former American League Most Valuable Player.
4. Lastings Milledge, OF, Nationals: It's still unclear why the Mets were willing to part ways with Milledge -- once the pride of their farm system -- for middling lineup fillers Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. Perhaps there's more than meets the eye here -- namely, Milledge having a bum foot and a tweaked oblique. Health permitting, there's no reason why the 22-year-old center fielder can't go 15-15 in the near future.
3. Nick Swisher, OF, White Sox: An integral part of a revamped White Sox offense, Swisher shouldn't have much trouble fitting in on the South Side. For one, home runs are far more common at U.S. Cellular Field than at McAfee Coliseum in Oakland, and he'll see plenty of pitches to hit with protection from Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome and Paul Konerko. At 26, Swisher enters his peak years under ideal conditions.
2. Erik Bedard, SP, Mariners: Bedard played the whole great-pitcher-on-a-struggling-team role to a tee last season, turning in a Cy Young-caliber campaign despite receiving little run support from Baltimore's offense. The trade to Seattle figures to wipe the slate clean. Three reasons to expect another step forward: Safeco Field, excellent defense and bigger bats. Look out.
1. Adam Jones, OF, Orioles: Topping off a list filled with current or former Orioles is Jones. Long regarded by scouts as one of the game's top young outfield talents, he reminds me of Arizona's Chris Young in some respects, though he's still a bit raw and impatient. With support from rising stud Nick Markakis and a much more hitter-friendly home park, Jones could deliver 20-plus homers and 10 steals in his first full big league season.