Each spring seems to bring a surprise or two. This March, one of the exciting stories was the emergence of Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney.
Barney is a starting major league second baseman few people had heard of before the season began. Now, along with emerging star Starlin Castro, Barney represents one half of a dynamic middle-infield duo for the Cubs. A look at a Cubs starting lineup will often show Castro and Barney hitting first and second in the batting order. The baseball world is taking notice of the impact these two players are having on their club. Recently, there are times when Kosuke Fukudome leads off and Castro bats third in the order. Either way, Barney is prospering in the second hole.
The 25-year-old Barney helped lead his South Ridge, (Beaverton) Oregon High School team to their first state championship in 2002. He carried his winning ways to Oregon State University where he helped his team win back-to back National NCAA Division I baseball championships in 2006 and 2007. His play at shortstop convinced the Cubs to draft him with the No. 127 selection in the fourth round of the 2007 amateur draft. Barney even had a role in a movie that was made in 2007, but he'll have to use acting as a backup career. He's becoming successful as a baseball player, and has been riding a positive wave since his arrival as a professional player.
Overall in three-and-a-half seasons of minor league play at every level, Barney had 1,696 plate appearances that yielded 1,546 at-bats. He played in 423 games and hit a respectable .286. He only hit 10 homers in that span and drove in 172 runs while scoring 206 times. Barney walked 112 times and struck out in 197 at-bats. He stole 33 bases over his minor league career. All in all, he showed that he can handle the bat, but he didn't flash any one outstanding skill. He played very well defensively and he provided an athletic spark to his teams. It caught the eye of the Cubs' front office and he got a chance to play for the major league club in August 2010 following the team's trade of Ryan Theriot. Many thought Barney's role would be strictly as a utility infielder. The scrappy Barney is proving to be more than that.
In 30 games last season, Barney hit .241 without a homer in 79 at-bats. But he got a taste of major league life and he's fought hard to retain his new position in the game.
It was spring training this season that put Barney on the Cubs' map. He showed that he belonged in the big leagues. He brought fire and enthusiasm to a team desperately in need of both. More about that later.
Barney is a 5-foot-10, 188-pound grandson of a Korean grandfather and a Japanese grandmother. His nickname is Dar Bar. He plays the game in a manner similar to Boston's Dustin Pedroia. Although he doesn't have Pedoria's bat, he comes to each game with high intensity and a desire to win. He was so intent on improving his chances to make the big league club that he spent the offseason in Arizona working closely with the Cubs hitting guru, Rudy Jaramillo. Barney worked on his pitch recognition, while shortening his stroke and overall mechanics under Jaramillo's guidance. During the winter Barney added 18 pounds of muscle to his frame.
As spring training began, the Cubs had viewed former Dodgers second baseman Blake DeWitt and former Rockies infielder Jeff Baker as the frontrunners to start the season at second base. By the time spring training ended, DeWitt wasn't doing anything with the bat, and Baker was sharing the role with Barney. Barney finished spring training hitting .340 with six RBI and seven runs scored. As this is being written, Barney has pretty much taken over as the starting second baseman on the north side of Chicago. He and Starlin Castro are working very well together defensively and at the top of the Cubs' batting order, setting the table for bigger guns to drive home runs. Barney and Castro compliment one another very well.
The right-handed hitting Barney's skill set is prototypical of many major league middle-infielders. His first love has always been to play shortstop. However, he is more than capable of transferring his skills to second base. He's a contact hitter with little power. The shorter, more compact stroke he developed over the winter has allowed him to see more success at the plate. Overall, his offensive game includes putting the bat on the ball and getting "seeing eye" hits as well as line drives to the outfield. He does have enough power to hit the gaps, but it really isn't the centerpiece of his game. He hit his first major league home run on April 25 against the Rockies. He doesn't have excessive speed, but he does run well enough to steal some bases. However, he should not be counted on to lead the league in that category. In spring training, I recorded a 2.5 time on him running from home to first base. That's major league average. It's Barney's hustle and will to beat the opposition that influence his overall game.
Defensively, scouts have indicated that Barney is probably the best defensive player in the Cubs' organization. Since that accolade includes Starlin Castro, it's quite a statement. Interestingly, Castro has been known to make spectacular plays at shortstop while at times missing on a throw to first or bobbling a routine grounder. In the same game in which Barney hit his first homer, Castro made three errors. While Castro has the makings of a very, very good defensive shortstop, Barney is viewed as a tad better. Like any subjective evaluation, that's in the eye of the beholder. The point? Barney is a top quality defender, so when he was asked to make the transition to second because of the presence of Castro it did not cause a problem. Barney made a flawless transition to second base with good range, quick feet, a strong and sure arm and soft hands. Baseball talent observers see Barney as a very proficient middle infielder.
As an extremely athletic player, Barney has a little bit of Ozzie Smith in him. He has shown his teammates that he can do back flips and cartwheels on the field. He just hasn't performed those feats during infield practice in front of fans. The Royals' Jarrod Dyson does the same gymnastics for his teammates prior to games.
From a fantasy point of view, it seems clear that Barney is a good contact hitter with the capability of using the entire field. He should probably be able to score runs hitting from the second spot in the batting order. I would say his batting average would certainly not be harmful and he has a chance to be a good overall hitter. He won't be able to sustain his current batting average as pitchers adjust to him. Much will depend on his ability to adjust to the pitchers' adjustments. I can see a top of .280 and no less than .270 as he settles in to his new role. He should offer stolen bases in the low teens. He won't offer home runs or drive in runs at any rate to help a fantasy team. In short, he will be a scrappy guy that will do whatever it takes to get on base and score runs. He won't try to hit for power and he won't try to do something beyond his normal capabilities. He should play very steady middle infield defense to keep his job in the starting lineup.
Barney will be a good, steady infielder with a chance to help the Cubs improve in the standings. That's the part the Cubs' love. They are thrilled that Barney is evolving into a top of the order hitter on a team that needs his energy. Darwin's theory of hustling and playing with intensity will endear him to Cubs fans who are always looking for a sparkplug to help them to the promise land.
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Bernie Pleskoff is a former pro scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. He is a graduate of the Major League Scouting Bureau's Scout School in Phoenix.