10 best ‘changes of scenery’

As we look to a new year, we also look to those players getting fresh starts. Some have a new team to thank for their fresh starts, others a change in position or role. But no matter the circumstances, there are plenty of players who are approaching this season with a renewed sense of optimism. Prince Fielder and Mark Trumbo are obvious choices, but let’s dig a little deeper, shall we?
Here are 10 players who will benefit the most from some sort of change of scenery.

Joe Mauer | 1B | Minnesota Twins

It’s not often that Mauer crosses the 600-plate-appearance threshold in a single season. In fact, in his nine full major league seasons, he has done so just four times, and he turned that trick only once in the past four seasons. Even in their best shape, catchers need some rest (non-Yadier Molina division), and Mauer was hardly in the best shape the past couple of years. That is why the move to first base should do his body good.

Mauer was outstanding at the plate last season, but he tallied just 105 plate appearances after the All-Star break due to his concussion in August. He probably can’t repeat his .383 BABIP this season, but more plate appearances from Mauer will be a boon for the Twins, who need all the help they can get.

Adam Eaton | OF | Chicago White Sox

Last season, Eaton was supposed to be the Opening Day starter in center field for the Arizona Diamondbacks. The team was very high on him. Then he got injured in spring training and missed half the season. Eaton would return on July 9, but was summarily jerked around for the rest of the season.

He started 28 games in center, 25 in left, three in right and was out of the starting lineup 17 times. While it’s true the Diamondbacks have two other very good outfielders in Gerardo Parra and A.J. Pollock, Eaton sometimes found himself on the bench so that guys such as Cody Ross, Jason Kubel and Willie Bloomquist could get into games. His longest stretch of consecutive games started at one position was six, in left field, from Aug. 24-30.

He will not be summarily jerked around this season in Chicago, and will have ample opportunity to prove that he is still a player that a team can depend upon.

Doug Fister | RHP | Washington Nationals

Now in the nation’s capital, Fister’s strikeout rate should get a boost from facing pitchers a few times a game. Plus, not having to watch Miguel Cabrera butcher plays at third base should be a relief for the extreme-ground-ball pitcher, who finished fourth in MLB last year with a ground-ball rate of 54.3 percent.

John Axford | Closer | Cleveland Indians

Last season, it looked like we were seeing the last of “John Axford, reliable major league pitcher.” He stunk up the joint in Milwaukee, but a late-season trade to the St. Louis Cardinals seemed to rejuvenate him, as he posted a 1.74 ERA in a brief stint with the Cards versus a 4.45 mark with the Brewers.

Now he is back in the closer role with the Indians. Since the Indians didn’t make a large financial commitment to him (just $4.5 million guaranteed) and they have a closer-in-waiting in Cody Allen, Axford probably won’t have the longest leash in the world, but Terry Francona is generally a pretty patient manager. Axford probably couldn’t have landed in a better spot.

Brandon Belt | 1B | San Francisco Giants

If you looked at Belt’s games played last season, you would think he was a full-time player. After all, he played in 150 games. And yet he didn’t reach 600 plate appearances on the season. Granted, his 571 PAs were a career high, but generally speaking a player who gets into 150 games should tally a lot more than that.

The reason why Belt didn’t get there is because during the first half he was routinely taken out toward the end of ballgames, getting benched at the outset or removed before the game concluded in 29 percent of the Giants’ games (27 of 94). After the All-Star break, that number dropped to 19 percent (13 of 68). Belt will probably never get into every game, because the Giants need to play Buster Posey at first base on occasion, but the level of commitment to Belt definitely ramped up in the second half as his hitting improved. As a result, Belt enters the 2014 season in the best place he has been in his young career.

Tony Cingrani | LHP | Cincinnati Reds

Last season was a nice introduction to the majors for the young left-hander, and certainly no one is going to shake a stick at having the chance to toss 100 innings for a team that reached postseason play.

Still, Cingrani was jerked around a little bit, from the bullpen to the rotation to the minors to being put on ice for more than a week at a time. Dusty Baker certainly never developed a set plan for Cingrani, which probably doesn’t come as a shock to most Reds fans. However, that should change this season as Bronson Arroyo‘s departure leaves Cingrani with a rotation spot all staked out. And should he pitch as well as he did last season, it’s one that he should have staked out for quite some time.

Ian Kennedy | RHP | San Diego Padres

Fly-ball pitchers are a dangerous proposition at Chase Field, and as such, Kennedy was always a risky play for the D-backs. Luckily, Kennedy now finds himself in the pitchers’ haven of San Diego. The tradeoff for Kennedy will be that the Padres’ outfield defense is not on the same level as Arizona’s, though Arizona’s outfield defense will take a hit this season now that the team will have a full season of Mark Trumbo in left, so perhaps that is a moot point.

In addition, the Padres have the luxury of playing Reymond Fuentes in center when Kennedy starts (assuming he makes the team as a fifth outfielder), at least until Cameron Maybin returns to action.

Jacoby Ellsbury | CF | New York Yankees

Ellsbury moves from one good situation to another, which isn’t a given for free agents trying to land big contracts (hi, Robinson Cano!). While many Boston Red Sox fans will probably never forgive him for switching to the so-called Evil Empire, things couldn’t have worked out better if he did leave Boston. In Boston, he had defensive stalwart Shane Victorino by his side, and in the Bronx he will have Brett Gardner to help ease his burden. All of that should be good news for Ellsbury, who won’t have to deal with Fenway’s Triangle and Green Monster nearly as often.

Both of those things should do wonders for Ellsbury’s peace of mind, as should the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium. In 2013, Fenway Park was one of the toughest places for a lefty to hit a home run, while Yankee Stadium was one of the easiest. Ellsbury hasn’t cracked double-digit homers since hitting 32 in 2011, and he is now in a much better place to do so.

Nelson Cruz | OF | Baltimore Orioles

His .226 ISO across the past three seasons ranks 22nd among qualified hitters, and he should have it on display often in Baltimore. His former ballpark in Texas wasn’t bad, but in terms of home runs for right-handed hitters, it has played essentially neutral over the past three years. In contrast, Camden Yards has played 17 percent better for right-handed hitters during the same time span.

Cruz didn’t get the contract he wanted, but right-handed power is generally in short supply, and if he can take advantage of his friendly new ballpark, perhaps he will find a bigger pot of gold at the end of the rainbow next winter.

David Murphy | OF | Cleveland Indians

After a stinker of a 2013 campaign during which he hit .220/.282/.374, few would have predicted that Murphy would land a starting gig on a team with aspirations of contending for a playoff spot. Yet that is exactly what he did. And while he won’t start every day, he’ll certainly have the larger half of a potentially dangerous platoon with Ryan Raburn.

The Indians were able to see that his 2013 line was dragged down by an uncharacteristically low batting average on balls in play (.220, down from .304 in 2012), as well as too many plate appearances against left-handed pitching (Murphy historically has hit right-handers very well, but has been abysmal against lefties). And for the first time in his career, he has a two-year contract, so he won’t have the pressure of another contract year potentially weighing him down.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.
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Scott Kazmir? I’d say his was a much better improvement than many on this list.