Eckstein Effect: Ryan Theriot could be exactly what this Cardinals team needs

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Ryan Theriot has what it takes to be the Cardinals starting shortstop. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

Back in May, the Chicago Cubs moved Ryan Theriot to second base to make room for an up-and-coming prospect named Starlin Castro. Castro shined in his rookie season, but the move still seemed premature at the time.

Theriot had been the team’s starting shortstop for the better part of three seasons. He was a proven player at the position. Solid and reliable defensively. He was also the heart and soul of a ball club in dire need of some spark. The Cubs were already looking forward to next year as their big contract players floundered. Theriot was the lone bright spot, hitting over .300 and playing hard.

But his arm was too weak and his range was lacking, Chicago said. He was hardly the prototypical shortstop. Theriot was a second baseman playing shortstop out of necessity.

Now, Theriot is a member of the Cardinals. And he will likely be the team’s starting shortstop in 2011. But the same questions that swirled in Chicago are now being asked in St. Louis, especially after trading a great defensive shortstop in Brendan Ryan.

People around baseball are skeptical about the move. Tony La Russa is touting Theriot as a key to helping the team win ball games this summer. He’s the type of player La Russa loves.

And he’s the kind of player La Russa has been searching for since David Eckstein left town in 2007. Eckstein was one of La Russa’s favorite players. And Theriot definitely has a little bit of David Eckstein in him.

La Russa may be trying to recreate that magic. The skipper knows he doesn’t need a wizard at shortstop to win it all. He needs a steady hand who can provide leadership and get on base.

Eckstein played that role perfectly for three years. Theriot matches the description perfectly. But like Eckstein, he’ll have to win the fans and the organization over with his play on the field.

***

The whispers and the laughs and the doubts followed David Eckstein everywhere he went since he was a kid.

Coaches in his youth league told him he was “too small to play.” Division I programs didn’t even know his name coming out of high school. When he was drafted out of the University of Florida by the Boston Red Sox, the organization saw a minor league lifer who might coach one day, but he’d certainly never make it to the show.

The doubters proved to be the real joke every step of the way.

Eckstein did more than just play in Little League, he grew into a player that helped Seminole High School win a state championship in Florida. He didn’t just walk on at Florida, he became a scholarship player and the standard for every Gator ballplayer that followed. The Florida dugout features a picture of Eckstein by the bat rack labeled “The Face of a Champion.” After nearly four years in the Boston farm system, the team waived him. The Anaheim Angels signed him and by 2001, Eckstein was the starting shortstop for the Anaheim Angels.

He anchored the Angels’ middle infield for four seasons, including their magical run to the 2002 World Series championship. Eckstein was the perfect leader of a team defined by a rally monkey. When the chips were down, the team always found a way. And so did Eckstein.

The 5-7 sparkplug was hit by the most pitches in baseball in his first two seasons. He was willing to sacrifice his body to win. Baseball people everywhere started to notice.

He may have been small, but his heart was too big to ignore. Eckstein finished 11th in the MVP voting in 2002. And his winning personality and feel-good story made him a fan favorite in Anaheim and beyond.

***

Eckstein didn’t play shortstop in high school. He didn’t play shortstop in college. And he didn’t play shortstop in the minor leagues.

He didn’t have the physical tools necessary to play what is arguably the toughest and most important position in professional baseball.

Joe Arnold, his coach at Florida, loved Eckstein but even he had a tough time seeing him make it, especially as a shortstop.

“Absolutely not,” he said in a 2007 USA Today story by Paul White. “The most amazing part of this story is that he never played shortstop. There was never a consideration of him playing shortstop. He couldn’t throw. It’s ugly … hop, skip and a jump, and he’ll just get you.”

Just Enough. It’s one of Eckstein’s nicknames. And it’s all he had to do at shortstop, a position he learned on the fly in the majors from Angels coach and former shortstop Alfredo Griffin.

Eckstein always had what it took to succeed at shortstop. All he needed was a chance.

He didn’t need a gun. He didn’t need to look smooth or pretty. He just needed to make the routine play and fire across the diamond a split second before the runner stepped on first.

It’s all any shortstop needs to do. And it’s what he did – in fitting Eckstein style. Every throw looked like a struggle – taking everything he had to get it there – but it always got there.

He didn’t have the range of Ozzie Smith or any of the top shortstops in the game. But he studied hitters and positioned himself well to make the plays. Eckstein is also known for his constant communication with teammates, directing the outfielders and working with the infield between every pitch.

Eckstein knows those intangibles don’t add up to gaudy statistics or get All-Star votes.

But they do make a shortstop.

Playing shortstop requires an understanding and awareness for the game above any physical ability. The manager must trust him. His teammates must trust him.

That trust means the shortstop is the guy everyone wants to see the ball hit to in the bottom of the ninth with the game on the line. It’s all about making that play.

***

Even after establishing himself as a winner who could hit .290 and play shortstop in Anaheim, there were still doubters and detractors out there.

It became clear after the 2004 season when the Angels let Eckstein go in favor of Orlando Cabrera who had just won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox. Boston signed Cardinals star shortstop Edgar Renteria to bolster their loaded roster.

Cabrera’s new contract was worth $32 million over four years. Renteria signed a four-year deal worth $40 million.

Eckstein landed in St. Louis, signing a three-year, $10.25 million deal.

For all he had accomplished in four seasons, Eckstein could be replaced in Anaheim. And it was worth spending more than $20 million extra to get someone better.

It was just another challenge to prove people wrong again.

He also had to win over another fan base that was upset to see its All-Star shortstop leave for greener pastures.

Renteria came to St. Louis as a raw 22-year-old kid with one World Series ring already and blossomed into a perennial All-Star, a two-time Gold Glove winner, and MVP candidate. In his last three years with the Redbirds, he batted .305, .330 and .287. He turned 28 in 2005, so his best years were thought to be ahead of him. Renteria should have been a Cardinals great at shortstop on contenders for the rest of the decade.

Few players in baseball could replace Renteria’s all-around game and production at the time.

Eckstein, 30, wasn’t one of them. But he was St. Louis’ answer.

Cardinals beat writer Matthew Leach made that clear in the 2005 Sporting News spring training preview.

Said Leach: “CHANGES THAT DON’T FIT: The most obvious downgrade is at shortstop, where Edgar Renteria will be replaced by David Eckstein. Fans will love Eckstein’s all-out style, but he won’t match Renteria on offense or defense.”

Leach was right, Eckstein didn’t match Renteria of 2002-2004. But he did match Renteria in 2005 and beyond. Eckstein hit .298 and made two All-Star Games during his three-year contract. In those same three years, Renteria hit .300 and made one All-Star Game, playing one season in Boston and two in Atlanta. Renteria committed 54 errors, including an astounding 30 in 2005 compared to Eckstein’s 41 errors.

The tradeoff proved to be a wash and it saved St. Louis millions.

Leach was right about another thing too: The fans loved Eckstein. So did his teammates. And so did Tony La Russa.

Eckstein loved St. Louis too. His best years came for the Redbirds. His three-year stay saw three of his top four seasons in batting, the two All-Star appearances, and a World Series.

***

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Tags: 2006 World Series Brendan Ryan David Eckstein Hustle Intangibles Jamey Carroll Jimmy Rollins Joe Posnanski Juan Uribe Los Angeles Dodgers Ryan Theriot Sabermetrics Sports Illustrated St Louis Cardinals Starlin Castro Tony La Russa UZR World Series

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