ST. LOUIS -- Still two years away from free agency, Ryan Theriot doesn't yet get to choose where he plays. But if he did, it's very likely he would have chosen the Cardinals.
He likes the chance to win. He likes his new teammates. And maybe most of all, he likes the chance to return to the position he knows best and loves the most. After playing second base for much of 2010, he's looking forward to getting back to shortstop.
"It's weird," he said. "Just being on that side of the infield makes [me] a little bit more comfortable. I guess that's because I've played there since I was a little kid."
Theriot didn't especially like being moved off of shortstop to make room for rookie Starlin Castro with the Cubs last year. He believes he can still play the position at a high level, and he's eager to show it again.
"I don't think it really [was] justified ... or feel like I didn't perform well enough to play short anymore at that point," he said. "I didn't feel like that was the case at all. I understand we had some players coming up and whatnot, but I can still play short. I think we proved that in '07 in '08. We won the division. No other shortstop has had back-to-back division champions over there. It's definitely a fun spot for me."
And Theriot acknowledged that a year of transitions -- not just across the infield, but across the country, as well -- may have played a part in his disappointing year at the plate. He played a new position and played in a different organization for the first time. He played for two clubs in the midst of ownership-related turmoil, and two managers who made 2010 their last year.
After posting a combined .365 on-base percentage in 2008 and '09, Theriot slipped in '10. He batted .270 in a season split between Chicago and the Dodgers, with a .321 on-base percentage and a .312 slugging percentage. Even so, the Cardinals brought him in for two main reasons: his personality and his bat. The former remains fully intact. The question is whether the latter will return to its previous levels.
The Cardinals are optimistic that it will, and that Theriot will play defense well enough.
"Theriot can play defense, can get a base hit and runs the bases," said manager Tony La Russa. "That's why he's good for us."
St. Louis has seen a great deal of Theriot over the years, and for the most part, the Redbirds have kept him quiet. He's a lifetime .263/.307/.327 hitter against the Cards, well down from his career averages of .284/.348/.356. So, it's not that he wowed La Russa and general manager John Mozeliak with a string of hits in those Cubs-Cards games.
Yet, they believe he'll hit. A couple of projection systems have different views on that issue. The Bill James Handbook projects Theriot to put up a .277/.340/.339 line -- not up to his peak level, but certainly an improvement over what he did last year. However, the ZiPS system (posted at the Baseball Think Factory website) calls for Theriot to hit .269/.327/.324 -- virtually identical to his 2010 numbers.
Defense would seem to be the bigger question, but maybe it shouldn't be. A heavily groundball-oriented staff loved having Brendan Ryan catch the ball behind them in 2010 -- he's one of the game's truly elite defensive shortstops. Theriot won't be at that level, but he expects to be plenty good enough.
And though this may surprise some fans, there are numbers that indicate that that may well be the case. In 2009, his last year as a full-time shortstop, Theriot graded out pretty well defensively. According to the plus-minus system, he rated a plus-7 in '09, saving five runs. FanGraphs' UZR system had him rated at 3.7 runs above average, and by the Total Zone Total Fielding Runs metric, he was two runs above average.
That's not Ryan territory, but Theriot was better than common perception would likely indicate. He hopes that statement is true about all areas of his game.
"There [are] so many intangibles that go into this game," he said. "It's not just throw the ball over the plate, swing, strike one, strike two, strike three -- that type of stuff. There [are] a lot of other things that go into it. And there was a ton of variables last year. There really was. ... The bottom line is that that wasn't the type of season that I want to put up, that I'm capable of. And I know that as well as you guys do. So you work extra hard and get back to where you want to be, which is winning. I could hit .250, but if we win, I'm fine with that."
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.