When top 10 prospect DJ LeMahieu got the call a couple of days ago, it got me thinking as to who will be the Cubs second baseman of the future. If you would have asked this question 2 seasons ago, the answer would have been a no-brainer. LeMaheiu was a first round draft pick and Barney projected as a utility infielder who had mostly played SS up until then. At that time I was thinking Barney would make a nice backup to Starlin Castro for the next several years.
Now it's not so easy.
Despite LeMahieu's gaudy batting average in AA, it isn't clear cut that he'll be a better player for the Cubs in the future. Barney has made himself into a good hitter as well and has proved himself at the highest levels of baseball the past two seasons. So let's break it down, tool by tool, stat by stat and see who comes out on top...
Hitting/OBP: Although Barney has worked hard to make himself into a Ryan Theriot-type hitter, LeMahieu is the more natural hitter. It isn't hard to envision him hitting an easy .290-.300 while Barney will likely have to grind out a .275-.285 batting average. As far as OBP, everyone thinks of walks when they think of OBP and with good reason, but sometimes we forget that it's batting average that makes up most of that OBP number. The trouble with this category is that it's redundant in ths case -- neither player takes a walk, so we're back to batting average. Slight advantage: LeMahieu
Power/Slugging Pct: If LeMahieu is going to separate himself from Barney, it would be here, but despite his greater size, he hasn't hit for many home runs so far. What he does hit are doubles, which are still better than the singles that Barney has been hitting most of the time. If LeMahieu fills out a bit more and starts showing the ability to hit 10-15 home runs, this becomes a big advantage for him. For right now... Advantage: LeMahieu...though it could become a big advantage in the next couple of years.
Speed: Neither player is a burner, but Barney is faster and the better baserunner. Advantage: Barney
Defense: Barney was an excellent defender at SS and looks even better at 2b. He has
arguably been the Cubs best defensive player all season. He's shown to be capable of both steady, consistent play and flashing the occasional spectacular play. LeMahieu isn't on the same level. He came up as a SS, has played some 3rd and is now trying 2b as well. He has excelled at none of them defensively: Big Advantage: Barney
Intangibles: LeMahieu is a bit laid back while Barney is a fire plug who brings energy and max effort to the game. Barney is also an intelligent player who understands the nuances of the game and adapts accordingly. Advantage: Barney
So I've got a 3-2 edge to Barney on this one, but it's not over yet. LeMahieu still has room to develop, particularly in the power department. He could also work on his defense. And though his walk rates have been low, it's been a bit higher this year, so the hope is he continues to channel his aggression at the plate and become a more balanced hitter. If LeMahieu can further develop his power stroke and play adequate defense, it should be enough to push Barney to the bench, where he'll be one of the better utility infielders in baseball. If LeMahieu doesn't make these improvements, I'd go with Barney on the strength of his defense while LeMahieu becomes a nice bat off the bench who can play multiple positions around the infield.
There's still one more, less heralded candidate for the immediate future, Ryan Flaherty has been the Cubs best hitter at AA and is capable of playing second base, although not as well as Barney, or even LeMahieu. What he does have is superior discipline at the plate and the abilty to hit 15-20 home runs. If Flaherty gets the call for the Cubs sometime this season, we may have to re-visit this debate.