Ryan Theriot ready to lead off

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Back when he was going from Daytona to Lansing to West Tennessee, back to Daytona, then back to Tennessee, Ryan Theriot was known for his versatility. It's how he caught the attention of the Chicago Cubs in the first place, how he eventually became Lou Piniella's starting shortstop.

Shortstop, second base, outfield -- any of these positions would have been fine for the kid from Louisiana, who despite an impressive college baseball pedigree, stayed wide-eyed for his first few big league seasons.

Now after three-plus years in Chicago, Theriot, who turned 30 and became a father of three with the birth of Georgia Grace during the offseason, has largely lost that sense of wonder.

Arbitration and a minor league shortstop whose name begins with the letters S-T-A-R can do that to a person.

Ready to settle in as the team's regular leadoff man on Opening Day, Theriot has changed his swing; strengthened his legs; and, despite showing a team-first attitude by saying he would be happy to eventually move to second base to make way for Starlin Castro, toughened his resolve.

Shortly after arriving in camp and learning that he lost last month's arbitration hearing, Theriot addressed the Castro situation by saying: "As of now I am the shortstop, and I have been for three years. I've done a good job. He's going to have to come get it."

Tough talk from a guy who falls well short of the glamour shortstops around the league. And yet, the fact that Theriot is entering his fourth season as the Cubs' starter there and felt that he deserved more than $3 million this season, says all you really need to know about him.

Most athletes describe a point in their careers when they realize unequivocally that it's big business. This winter was that time for Theriot, who admitted the other day that the process was stressful.

"Yeah, it wasn't a very fun time, honestly," he said. "It was difficult just because I love the Cubs, I love the organization and [general manager] Jim [Hendry], and I have a wonderful relationship we've had for years. [Assistant GM] Randy Bush as well. So in that regard, yeah, it was stressful."

Theriot was asking for $3.4 million this season but instead will be paid $2.6 million, which still amounts to a $2.1 million raise. And the two sides apparently avoided the sort of ill will that often results from the process.

Hendry, who had never been to an arbitration hearing, made it a point to get together to talk to Theriot both before and after the hearing. And both described their relationship as actually being strengthened through the process.

"I told our people doing the case: 'I don't want to ever get to the point where it's going to be personal. Our arguments are not going to be based on tearing the player down, it's going to be based on just what the factual and financial ramifications are,'" Hendry said. "We just stuck to the facts, and I think the right decision was made, but it wasn't like Ryan didn't do well in the deal either. I think he understands that now."

Theriot said he felt an obligation to go through it.

"Not only for myself but the guys coming after me and the guys who came before me," he said. "The smart thing to do is totally take yourself out of the situation and look at it from the outside looking in. It took me a long time to do that. I was probably involved too much. There were days when I'd be like, 'This is ridiculous.' Because it's not about the bottom dollar. It's a process set up for the players to be utilized. That's why it's there."

And with it behind him, Theriot said he was able to refocus, immediately taking advantage of new Cubs' batting coach Rudy Jaramillo despite the fact that he had not been particularly struggling.

"I definitely made some changes in my swing," said Theriot, who narrowed his stance and moved his hands on his grip. "I took a few weeks to get comfortable with that, but it's really feeling good right now, easy, not forced, just kind of happening, doing things with pitches I couldn't do before. I'm excited about it."

No wonder. Theriot is 13-of-25 (.520) with two doubles, six runs scored and four stolen bases.

How does that translate to becoming a solid, full-time leadoff hitter? Last season, his on-base percentage dipped considerably, and he has struggled the last two Septembers.

"I think if we give him a little more rest, his on-base percentage will go up," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "I think when he gets a little tired, he gets a little more overanxious at home plate, doesn't work the count as good. He played in a lot of games last year."

More than anything, Piniella likes the fact that No. 2 hitter Kosuke Fukudome breaks up the right-handed hitters in the front part of his lineup. And with Alfonso Soriano effectively eliminating himself from the competition, Theriot was an obvious choice.

"We don't have what you would classify as a burner who's going to steal 40 bases out of the leadoff hole, so it doesn't really matter who we lead off with," Piniella said.

It matters to Theriot enough that he worked specifically on leg strength this off-season.

"Yeah, quite a bit more than I ever have before, and I think it will pay dividends for sure this year," he said.

Four years ago, Piniella replaced starting shortstop Cesar Izturis with a kid from LSU who logic told us had neither the range nor the arm to keep the job for very long. In all likelihood, the Cubs will be better off one day with Castro at short and Theriot at second.

And when the time comes, Theriot will accept that.

But not yet.