Insider: Rays Eyeing Ryan Theriot

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports reports the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, and Tampa Bay Rays are interested in free agent infielder Ryan Theriot. The 31-year-old infielder has spent six seasons with three different teams (Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals) hitting .282/.344/.353 for his career. Last year, he played in 132 games for the world champion Cardinals with a line of .271/.321/.342 in 483 plate appearances.

Theriot has spent the bulk of his career at shortstop, but can also play second base and has limited experience at third base. Next season, the bulk of playing time up the middle will go to Ben Zobrist, Sean Rodriguez, and Reid Brignac. Under this scenario, Theriot would be a reserve/utility infielder, leaving Elliot Johnson as his main competition.

Offensively, there is little to compare as Johnson’s production was nearly non-existent last season. The Rays gave Johnson 181 plate appearances in 2011 and received a slash line of .194/.257/.338. Looking a little further, nine of his 31 hits (29%) did not leave the infield. When he was not trying to leg out groundballs or laying down bunts, he struck out nearly 30% of the time.

Theriot is far from an offensive all-star, but while his .321 on-base percentage over the past two seasons is not great, it would represent a huge upgrade over Johnson. As a right-handed hitter, he does well against left-handed pitchers with a career line of .301/.373/.401 versus southpaws. Johnson – a switch-hitter – did better from the right side of the plate last season, but reached base just 31% of the time versus lefties. Johnson holds the edge in power; however, Theriot rarely whiffs and strikes out in just 10% of his at-bats. His high contact rate, and Joe Maddon’s willingness to employ the hit-and-run, could lead to some additional scoring opportunities at the bottom of the lineup.

Truth be told, neither player should be looked upon as much of an offensive threat. As reserve infielders, their value will also depend on position flexibility, defense, and baserunning . Thus far, Johnson looks to be the superior defender. But as a bench player, Theriot’s defensive shortcoming could be minimized with reduced access to the field. He may also benefit from playing second base a bit more and perhaps better positioning under the Rays system.

Johnson is more likely the faster player. That said, faster does not always equal better on the base paths. He was just 6-for-13 in stolen base attempts and advanced from first-to-third on a single just once (five chances). Theriot has taken a beating from making outs on the basepaths, but from 2007-2010, he averaged at least 23 steals a season. In 2011, he attempted just 10 steals; however, the Cardinals did not emphasis running, finishing last in the National League in stolen bases. Outside of base stealing, Theriot scores from second base on a single 70% of the time. The league average in 2011 was 59%.

With the other teams interested, Theriot is likely to receive more playing time – and perhaps more dollars – in another location than he would in Tampa Bay. On the other hand, a reserve player with a good contact rate, the ability to run a little, and get on base against left-handed pitching, he would be a nice addition to Joe Maddon’s bench – if the price is right.