4/30/2014 10:00 A.M. ET
Changing spots: Players work on defensive transitions
Mauer among high-profile big leaguers learning ropes in first season at new position
By John Schlegel / MLB.com
Change is rarely easy, even if you're among the best in the world at what you do. But if changing positions in the field means prolonging, and perhaps even improving, your career and helping your team, then change is what you do.
Exhibit A for the 2014 Major League season: Joe Mauer.
A six-time All-Star catcher for the Twins, Mauer is among a handful of high-end players who are making the transition to a different position this year -- joining others like the Indians' Carlos Santana and the Brewers' Ryan Braun.
Mauer has shifted to first base to leave behind the pains and pitfalls of being a catcher in the big leagues, including concussions that threatened his career. The biggest benefit for him so far this season is that it's allowed him to start all 23 of the Twins' games, including 20 appearances at first and three at designated hitter.
And that's zero at catcher, where he had made 920 regular-season appearances before this year. For Mauer, change means a new perspective on the game from first base, leaving the tools of ignorance to be plied by teammates.
"My knees feel a lot better," Mauer said. "It's funny, I always joke around with Kurt [Suzuki] and [Josmil] Pinto. I tell them, 'I feel your pain. I've been there before.' I'm probably noticing it a lot more than most people. I definitely don't miss getting beat up back there."
With the season's first month coming to an end, players who have made a move have had mixed results. Santana's shift from catcher to third base has coincided with a slump he's just now showing signs of breaking. Meanwhile, Braun's shift to right after being in left most of his career (and at third before that) hasn't affected his power -- he has six home runs in April, although he's now day to day with a sore rib cage.
Not all changes are drastic ones. The Tigers' Miguel Cabrera headed back across the diamond to first, and the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter moved from second to third -- both positions they've played before. Dee Gordon is tearing it up in the leadoff spot for the Dodgers after making the fairly common shift from short to second, where he got a little time last year with Triple-A Albuquerque.
Outfielders having a go at a different spot include Mark Trumbo in left as a first-time full-time outfielder (though he landed on the disabled list early), and Curtis Granderson putting more than 1,000 games in center field behind him to take over in right for the Mets.
For Santana, all this change has proven a bit difficult. He has played at third base for 12 games (with just one error), served as catcher for five games and as DH seven times, and then started at first base for the first time Tuesday night. All the while, Santana has been the Tribe's full-time cleanup hitter, despite getting off to a .156 start at the plate.
Manager Terry Francona has stuck with Santana, and it might be starting to pay off. With a homer and three RBIs on Tuesday in the second of three games at the Angels, Santana posted back-to-back games with homers and notched consecutive multihit games, both for the first time this season.
"I've had bad moments, but they were happy," Santana said after a warm welcome back to the dugout from his homer trot in the opener. "They know I can hit and I can help the team."
Changing spots often takes time to take hold. Sometimes it takes a leap of faith, or a whole new outlook, like Mauer now has from first base.
Out from behind the mask entirely, Mauer has looked good so far defensively at first, displaying good range, and he hasn't made an error yet.
"He's still kind of getting a feel for everything he does over there at first base, but he'll be fine," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "He can catch the ball. It's just the more experience that he gets over there, the more games played, he'll be better."
At the plate now that he's not behind it, Mauer's still not quite himself offensively, but it's early. With a bit of a surge last week, he's hitting just .266 with three extra-base hits and 26 strikeouts in 94 at-bats.
Still, even for a superstar like Mauer, change can be good. Having shed the catcher's gear for the first time in his baseball career, he says this already looks like a change for the better.
Mauer said, "I think it'll just get me out there more. It's kind of the unknown. I'm feeling pretty good right now. I never went through a full season just playing first base. I guess time will tell."
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @JohnSchlegelMLB. Reporters Jordan Bastian and Rhett Bollinger contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.