Hope everyone had a happy holiday!
I just spent two days completely away from my laptop and spent that time with family and friends. It was nice, but after two days, I already miss baseball.
The Cubs figure to resume their shopping and they have one more roster spot to open up, so we should be getting some news here in late December/early January, but until that comes, it's time for the next in our series of examining organizational depth, position-by-position. Today, it's one of the Cubs deepest positions...
Offensive outlook (Bill James' projections)
- Darwin Barney: .268/.311/.357 with 5 HRs, .089 ISO, and .295 wOBA
Right now, Barney is the unquestioned starter on the Cubs and will be the Cubs opening day 2B. As far as backups go, that is yet to be determined, but we'll cover some more names in the depth and prospects section. James predicts a slight uptick in Barney's numbers across the board. As you may remember, Barney through the same offseason strength regimen that Tyler Colvin used to increase his stamina, and ultimately, his power numbers. It really appeared to help with Barney's extra base power in spring training as well, but the Cubs 2B saw no improvement during the regular season as far as his slugging numbers, which increased by just one point. Meanwhile his batting average dropped over 20 points and his OBP by 14. He is a well-below average offensive player, even with James' predicted improvement. Barney, however, is not in the lineup for his bat.
Barney was the Cubs best defensive performer last year, even winning a Gold Glove, the first Cubs 2B to do so since Ryne Sandberg. Barney makes up for a lack of elite athleticism with positioning and instincts. Barney's UZR/150 was 15.1 and his runs saved total of 28 (per the Fielding Bible) was far and away better than the runner-up Dustin Pedroia (17) and Brandon Phillips (11). Yet I heard this explained away by one expert as an average fielder who benefits from the Cubs superior defensive positioning. While that deserves some credit, it's hard to believe the Cubs do this so much better than everyone else that they can take an average fielder and allow him to perform far and away better than the reputed best gloves in the game. Barney deserves a lot of credit here. He has more athleticism than he's given credit for, especially in regards to hand-eye coordination, soft hands, and some of the best instincts in the game. His arm may be a little short for SS, but at 2B, it plays just fine.
Barney gives the Cubs a defensive asset at 2B that, along with an improving Starlin Castro, gives the Cubs one of the best DP combos in the game, something their revamped pitching staff will really benefit from this season. His bat belongs in the 8th spot in the lineup, however. Eventually the Cubs may want more production from that position, but for now Barney's defense lifts his overall value to that of a solid to above-average starter (2.5 WAR). There is no need to replace him now on a team that is going to rely on pitching and defense, especially when Castro continues to benefit from playing next to him.
While some think the Cubs should "sell high" on Barney, I don't see that as an option right now, primarily because I believe that, despite the Gold Glove, this value is not inflated right now. If anything, I think teams remain skeptical not just about his bat, but the glove as well (as noted by the expert mentioned above). Right now, the Cubs are thin as far as infield depth. The lone projected backup is Luis Valbuena, who is capable of filling in at 3B and SS as well as 2B. If the Cubs were to move Barney, it's likely that Valbuena would take over and while he projects better offensively (.253/.330/.402), he is likely to be a significant dropoff on defense, even though Valbuena is a solid defender in his own right. His strength, however, is at 3B.
Right now the rest of the utility depth are guys like Logan Watkins, who we'll talk about in the prospect section, and a guy signed to a minor league deals, Edwin Maysonet. Maysonet can play all 3 IF positions and hits from the right side, which gives him an advantage to win a spot alongside the bench with the lefty hitting Valbuena. Maysonet plays better on the left side of the IF, however. As for his bat, he's a career .265/.308/.346 hitter. The Cubs also signed former Rangers utility IF, Alberto Gonzalez. I don't see Gonzalez listed as having an invite to spring training, as Maysonet does, so he may be organizational depth for the team at Iowa this year. Of all the Cubs depth candidates, he is easily the best defensively at the up-the-middle positions, but his bat pales in comparison even to this light-hitting crew.
With the Cubs having some questions at 3B and infield depth, this is an area where the Cubs could look to the outside for some additional help. They pursued Jeff Keppinger but were outbid by the crosstown rival White Sox, who surprised the industry with a 3 yr/$12M deal. There were rumors that the Cubs had interest in Yuniesky Betancourt, but those were quickly shot down. He just doesn't seem to fit the Cubs profile either defensively or as a grinder at the plate. One interesting, versatile option could be Brandon Inge, who could provide a RH bat to balance out the lineup, some power, and excellent defense at multiple positions. While he won't hit for any kind of average, he does grind out walks and may provide enough help on a part-time basis.
Most MLB Ready: Logan Watkins (.281/.383/.422, 9 HRs, 22 SBs) was the Cubs minor league player of the year. He's a grinder with some tools. He'll play good defense, steal a base, and he gets on base both with his bat and his ability to draw walks. He's not a big player, so power is never going to be his game, but he does continue to show improvement (his ISO has increased every year since turning pro) and could provide doubles/triples power with the ability to perhaps hit double digits in HRs. If he doesn't become a starter, he could be an excellent utility player with ability to provide solid defense at 2B, SS, and CF. Watkins is ticketed for AAA. So far he has shown himself to be a one-level-at-a-time type of prospect, so I don't expect him to skip AAA, particularly because the Cubs prefer not to do that with any prospect.
Best prospect: Gioskar Amaya, though it's close. Amaya, 20, edges out Watkins because he projects a bit better, but given everything that can happen between short-season ball and AA, the Cubs wouldn't be disappointed if he turned out a lot like Watkins himself. Amaya is a good defender with some speed and gap power (.298/.381/.496, 15 SBs). He has some HR power (8) to his pull side but it remains to be seen if that holds up at the higher levels. Like Watkins, he isn't a big player, but he may be the better pure hitter and last year he showed tremendous improvement in his ability to grind out ABs and draw walks.
Others to watch: As mentioned, this is a particularly deep position for the Cubs and they have several players who could challenge Barney and Watkins down the road. Ronald Torreyes, 20, had a strong 2nd half (.297/.361/.450 after the AS break) at Class A Daytona after a horrific start. He's an excellent contact hitter who squares up the ball with surprising regularity. Torreyes actually walked more often than he struck out (6.8% to 6.1%). He's listed at just 5'9" and even that might be a big stretch. Defensively, he's average with good instincts in the field. In a perfect world, the Cubs would let him start the year at Daytona, but nipping at his heels is another smallish 2B in Zeke DeVoss, so he may make yet another big jump to AA next year.
DeVoss, 22, is speedier with better plate discipline than Torreyes but he is not at the same level as a hitter. The 5'10, 175 lb. speedster hit .249/.382/.370 at Peoria with 34 SBs. DeVoss has the chance to be a better all-around player than Torreyes, but he has to hit more as he moves up. He's not going to walk at a 14% rate forever, especially if he doesn't give pitchers to throw anything but strikes. I expect DeVoss to bounce back somewhat with the bat this year as he had a big dropoff in BABIP, and while it wasn't atrocious, it was still low for a player of his speed given the level at which he played. Defensively he has excellent range and a good arm, but he is still a little raw, and given the Cubs log jam at 2B, it wouldn't surprise me to see him play some more CF in the near future. The move would increase his versatility and increase his odds of making it to the bigs, though his best bet as a starter would likely be to stick at 2B.
Stephen Bruno, 22, is yet another undersized, athletic infielder who has the versatility to play all over the field. Bruno's bat ranks right up there with Amaya's and he actually outhit him at Boise with a .357 batting average. Bruno is a couple years older however and doesn't walk as much, partly because he makes contact so easily. We may see Bruno jump a level to advanced A Daytona, though that may make the logjam even worse. His versatility, however, should allow him to share time with DeVoss and maybe even Torreyes at that level if it becomes necessary.
Others: Tim Saunders, Daniel Lockhart, David Bote