When Cubs fans talk about Darwin Barney, it's usually with the thought that he's just a place holder. We're always looking for someone better. When the Cubs picked up Adrian Cardenas on waivers from Oakland, a team that really doesn't have a good 2B option, some wondered if he would be the guy who would displace Barney. That doesn't show a whole lot of faith in their starting second baseman.
At first glance, Barney did very well. He hit a respectable .276 and played above average defense at 2B. His WAR even came out to 2.2, which is about the level of a solid regular.
Deeper inspection of his offensive performance tells a different story. Barney needs to get better at the plate. After a good start, the wheels came off for Barney in June when he hit .246 with no extra base hits and just 1 walk. It didn't get a whole lot better as the season went on. By the end of the year, Barney's OBP was just .313, but it's his lack of power that was the bigger problem. His ISO was just .078. Two stats that measure his overall offensive worth didn't make him look much better. His wOBA was a well-below average .296, as was his RC+ of 79.
As I've talked about in the past, the lack of power hurts Barney's ability to grind out ABs because pitchers aren't afraid to throw him strikes. Often, the worst can happen in the pitcher's mind is that he'll hit a single, so why bother walking him? Barney doesn't exactly have the patience of Job at the plate, but his low walk rate is somewhat deceiving. He swung at 29% of pitches outside the strike zone, which was best on the Cubs after Geovany Soto and Carlos Pena, the two guys noted for having the most patience on the 2011 team. The swing area on pitches he offered at was also 3rd behind those two players. In other words, he's not swinging at a lot of bad pitches and he's not venturing too far outside the strike zone.
So why the measly 3.7% walk rate? Because pitchers simply threw him a ton of strikes. In fact, they threw him a strike 56% of the time, which was easily among the highest rates in baseball.
This pretty much sums up the three things people liked least about Barney: 1) he wore down late in the season. In fact, he lost 15 lbs. and 2) He's a notorious singles hitter and 3) he doesn't draw enough walks.
3 problems but it's possible they could all be solved with the same solution.
That's exactly what Barney did this offseason. He went through the same regimen Tyler Colvin went through when he added all that power just before his rookie season. The result is that Barney has gained 15-20 lbs. of muscle. He looks noticeably bigger. In fact, he's up to a career high 190 lbs. going into this season.
What this means is that he should hold up better throughout the course of the season. The hope too is that he adds extra base power to his good contact skills. And if pitchers begin to think he'll take them in the gap if they lay one across the middle, they may be inclined to be less aggressive when he's at the plate, which could lead to more walks.
Could 15-20 lbs of muscle really set off that chain of events? Maybe, maybe not. But it certainly seems worth a shot. Even if he improves a little on offense, he could be a decent 2B when you factor in his defense.
Manager Dale Sveum is optimistic.
“I’m a little bit overwhelmed after having watched him [from] the other side. He’s a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought....His first step’s really good. He’s still learning second base. There’s some things I’ve talked to him about that I think will help him out around the bag and free him up. The ball’s coming off his bat really well. I’ve been really impressed’’
Whether Barney can actually improve remains to be seen, but for right now you can bet on him being the opening day 2B. The Cubs simply don't have an upgrade in their camp, so until then the upgrade is going to have to come from within Barney himself.