The Most Groundbreaking Position Moves in Baseball

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistSeptember 27, 2012

The Most Groundbreaking Position Moves in Baseball

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    Since the beginning of the sport, hundreds of baseball players have spent time at multiple positions on the baseball field.

    Some make careers out of being versatile enough to play any position at a moment's notice, those utility players who are incredibly important and often overlooked in their contributions to a team's success. But the vast majority of utility players are relative unknowns to the casual fan.

    While the bigger names of the game typically stay at the position where they've had the most success, sometimes a switch is necessary, whether it be due to injury or because it's in the best interests of the team.

    Other times, players who were average become superstars after a position change.

    Let's take a look at those players who switched gears at some point in their career without missing a beat.

Ernie Banks: Shortstop to First Base

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    From 1953 to 1961, Ernie Banks made seven consecutive All-Star games, won back-to-back National League MVP awards and slugged 298 home runs playing shortstop for the Chicago Cubs.

    Injuries to his legs had begun to take their toll on "Mr. Cub," and while he led the league in fielding in 1960 and 1961, it was evident that he no longer had the range needed to play the position. But Banks was still a heck of a hitter, and the Cubs needed to keep his bat in the lineup on a daily basis. 

    So he accepted a move to first base in 1962, a position he'd play until his retirement in 1971. When Leo Durocher took over the team in 1966, he kept trying to give prospects a shot to dethrone the king of Chicago. They all failed.

    Banks made three more All-Star teams, led all National League first basemen in assists five times, led the league in fielding once, and hit another 214 home runs en route to becoming the first Cub to have his number retired and his rightful place in the Hall of Fame.

Craig Biggio: Catcher to Center Field to Second Base

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    Even though Craig Biggio made the National League All-Star team as a catcher in 1991, the Astros decided that moving to second base was the right move for the 26-year-old entering the 1992 season.

    After watching Biggio swipe 71 bases in 92 attempts over the first three-and-a-half seasons of his career, preventing the daily grind of catching from sapping the speed from his legs became a priority.

    Biggio flourished, winning five consecutive Gold Glove awards and being named a National League All-Star for seven straight seasons, beginning in 1992 and making Biggio the first player in history to make the All-Star team at both positions.

    The next few seasons would see Biggio do what was in the best interests of the team; he'd move to center field in 2002 to make room for All-Star second baseman Jeff Kent and he'd slide over to left field in 2003 to allow All-Star Carlos Beltran to take his natural position in center field.

    Jeff Kent bolted Houston for the Dodgers in 2005, so who did the Astros look to?

    Biggio returned to the infield and his familiar spot at second base, hitting a career-high 26 home runs and picking up the 1,000th RBI of his career. His long-time teammate, Jeff Bagwell, is the only other Astros player to reach that mark.

    He'd remain at second base until his retirement following the 2007 season, but not before becoming the 27th player in MLB history to have 3,000 hits for his career. 

Dennis Eckersley: Starting Pitcher to Closer

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    A solid starting pitcher over the first 12 years of his major league career, going 151-128 with a 3.67 ERA, 1.21 WHIP and a 20-win season under his belt.

    Yet when he was traded from the Cubs to the A's at the beginning of the 1987 season, A's manager Tony LaRussa said that he planned on using the 32-year-old Eckersley out of the bullpen, either as a setup man or in long relief.

    Eck would make two starts for Oakland but an injury to A's closer Jay Howell allowed LaRussa to try Eckersley out as the closer. It's a move that paid off, to say the least.

    From 1988 through 1992, there wasn't a more dominating closer in the game than Eckersley.

    He'd make four All-Star games, be a key figure of the A's 1988 World Series championship team and save 220 games. Throw in an ERA if 1.91 ERA—he would have a sub-2.00 ERA in three of these five seasons—and in 1992, Eckersley saved 51 games and won both the American League MVP and Cy Young awards.

    Those 51 saves would make him the first player in baseball history with both a 20-win season and a 50-save season on their resume.

    Were it not for Tony LaRussa making him a closer, the only way Eckersley ever sees the Baseball Hall of Fame is as a paying customer, just like the rest of us.

Hank Greenberg: First Base to the Outfield

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    Tigers' All-Star first baseman Hank Greenberg would hit .315 with a league-best 58 home runs and 146 RBI in 1938, and he'd follow that up with a .312 batting average, 33 home runs and 112 RBI in 1939.

    That wasn't good enough for the Tigers, who not only asked Greenberg to take a pay cut for a drop in production, but they informed him that he'd have to move to the outfield as the team wanted to play catcher Rudy York at first base in the upcoming season.

    That's certainly no way to treat one of the premier players of his day, a three-time All-Star and former American League MVP. Greenberg reluctantly agreed to the switch, but only after negotiating a $10,000 bonus to be paid when he mastered the position—a bonus he'd receive at the end of spring training in 1939.

    Hammerin' Hank responded with another All-Star selection and he'd win the second MVP award of his career, becoming the first player to win MVP awards at two different positions.

    He would also become the first major league player to be drafted into military service for World War II in 1940, and while he played in 19 games during the 1941 season, he'd not play after May 6. 

    His honorable discharge on December 5, 1941 was short-lived, however, as Greenberg would become the first player to re-enlist after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

    Upon his return to baseball in 1945, Greenberg would spend one more season in the outfield before spending the last two years of his career back where it all started, first base.

Stan Musial: Right Field to First Base and Back Again

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    Here's a fact most people forget: Stan "The Man" Musial was actually a pitcher when his professional career began. While with the Cardinals' D-Team in Daytona Beach, manager Dickie Kerr decided to play Musial in the outfield when he wasn't on the mound as Musial swung the bat well and the Islanders often found themselves shorthanded.

    A shoulder injury suffered when he dove for a ball ended his pitching days, and by the end of the 1941 season, Musial was playing the outfield in St. Louis. He'd win the 1943 MVP award after leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, total bases, hits and doubles.

    Yet critics believed Musial's success was due to the fact that many of baseball's best players were away serving their country in World War II and that Musial had succeeded against inferior competition. Musial himself would spent 1945 in the military.

    Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer started to play Musial at first base in June of 1946, a position that the 25-year old would thrive in, winning the 1946 MVP award and joining Hank Greenberg as the only players to win a MVP award at two different positions.

    He'd move back to the outfield in 1948 where he'd put together another phenomenal season, becoming the first player in history to win three MVP awards.

    Musial would remain an outfielder in 1949 before beginning to split time between the outfield and first base in 1950, a scenario that lasted until 1952, when he returned exclusively to the outfield. 

    That lasted two seasons, and by 1955 Musial was once again manning first base in St, Louis, a place he'd stay until 1960, when he'd move back to the outfield for his final three major league seasons.

    In 22 seasons, Musial played more than 300 games at four different positions: 1,016 games at first base, 929 games in left field, 784 games in right field and 331 games in center.

Cal Ripken Jr.: Shortstop to Third Base

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    Primarily the Orioles starting shortstop in each of the previous 13 seasons, Cal Ripken Jr. slid over to third base on July 15, 1996 as part of an experiment to see whether Manny Alexander could handle the duties at shortstop.

    Ripken, who had won two American League MVP awards at shortstop, had last played third base on a semi-regular basis in 1982, the year that saw him take home American League Rookie of the Year honors.

    But by the time 1997 rolled around, Ripken, 36, was the Orioles permanent third baseman, Mike Bordick was the Orioles starting shortstop and Alexander was relegated to the bench.

    He'd remain at the hot corner for the rest of his career, and while his consecutive games played streak would come to an end, Ripken picked up the 3,000th hit of his career, only further cementing his place among the best players of his era.

Alex Rodriguez: Shortstop to Third Base

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    Alex Rodriguez was unquestionably the best shortstop in baseball from 1996 through 2003, being selected to seven All-Star games, winning two Gold Glove awards and the 2003 American League MVP award while hitting 340 home runs while averaging 42 home runs and 121 RBI a season.

    Of course, we'd later find out that he was using steroids, so speculation abounds about whether those numbers are legitimate or not.

    But we didn't yet know that following the 2003 season, and Alex Rodriguez and his $252 million contract were being shopped around the league. The Rangers thought they had a deal in place with the Red Sox but the MLB Players Association squashed the deal when A-Rod tried to reduce his salary.

    The Yankees were the only other team capable of taking on his salary, but with Derek Jeter entrenched at shortstop, Rodriguez would have to move to third base if he wanted to play in the Bronx.

    He did, and while he's been an average player at best over the last two seasons, Rodriguez did hit an additional 302 home runs, get selected for seven more All-Star games and pick up two more American League MVP awards. His 2005 MVP award made him the fourth player in history to win a MVP award at two different positions.

    Whether he makes the Hall of Fame or not is largely irrelevant for our purposes, but consider this: had the union not stepped in and squashed the deal between Texas and Boston, do the Red Sox end the curse and win two World Series championships with A-Rod at shortstop?

Babe Ruth: Pitcher to the Outfield

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    While he had been used primarily as an outfielder by the Red Sox in 1919, it wasn't until he joined the New York Yankees that Babe Ruth's transformation from pitcher full-time outfielder was completed.

    It's not that Ruth was a bad pitcher, because he was actually very good. From 1914-to-1919, Ruth would toe the rubber in 158 games for the Red Sox, going 89-46 with a 2.19 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 105 complete games.

    But the Yankees saw his potential as a full-time hitter, and without having to concentrate on two positions, well, you know how the story goes.

    Ruth would become the greatest player in the history of the game and his position change stands as the most important one in the history of the game.

John Smoltz: Starting Pitcher to Closer

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    Acquired from the Tigers in 1987 for Doyle Alexander, John Smoltz became one of the premier starting pitchers in baseball with the Braves, joining Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine to comprise one of the best pitching trios that the game has ever seen. 

    The 1996 National League Cy Young award winner, Smoltz would miss the entire 2000 season due to Tommy John surgery. When he struggled upon his return in 2001, Braves' manager Bobby Cox moved Smoltz from the rotation to the bullpen, replacing John Rocker as the Braves closer.

    Smoltz would thrive in his new role, saving 154 games over the next four seasons including a league-high 55 in 2002—joining Dennis Eckersley as the only two pitchers with both a 20-win season and a 50-save season during their careers.

Robin Yount: Shortstop to Center Field

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    A three-time All-Star and the 1982 American League MVP, offseason shoulder surgery in 1984 forced Robin Yount to shift from shortstop to center field for the Brewers in 1985.

    While he amazingly wouldn't make an All-Star game from this point forward, he did win his second MVP award in 1989, joining Stan Musial and Hank Greenberg as the only other players to win MVP awards at two different positions. Alex Rodriguez would make that a foursome in 2005.

    He also became the first player in more than 25 years to win multiple MVP awards over the course of their careers with the Yankees' M-and-M boys, Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle being the last two players to accomplish the feat.

    By the time Yount hung up his spikes in 1993, Yount had accumulated more than 3,000 career hits—including 1,751 during the 1980s, more than any other player—and would be elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.