I'm amazed at how far Darwin Barney has come. At the time he was picked in the 4th round of the 2007 MLB Draft, I just sort of shrugged. Utility guy, I thought. Barney has always been a good defender. The question was always his bat.
While the bat is still not his strong point, it's progressed enough to make him a viable starter, especially considering his defense. But he's become more than just a viable starter according to the Cubs front office.
“We’re certainly farther along than we were last year at this time,” said Theo Epstein. “When we got here, we identified one core player [Starlin Castro] and now we can look around and see Anthony Rizzo, Darwin Barney, Jeff Samardzija , and others.”
We knew about the other guys, but I was a little surprised to see Barney on that list. Then again, for a front office that values defense up the middle and strong mental makeup, maybe I shouldn't be. At a position that has evolved into one where we are seeing more and more offensive oriented players, such as Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia, Barney remains an old-school 2B who doesn't create runs with his bat, but rather saves them with his glove. In fact, he saved 28 of them according to the fielding bible, 13 more than the next closest 2Bs. There is no question he's an impact player on defense, especially because it comes at one of the up-the-middle positions
On offense, Barney has been below average. Last year he had an RC+ of 75 (league average is 100). So while he's saving far more runs than any other 2B, he's creating less runs than the average player.
On balance, however, he was an above average starter last season (2.5 WAR), something the Cubs haven't had a lot of lately, so maybe that alone is enough. After all, you can't have a star at every position.
But perhaps there's still more to it.
The Cubs have a lot of hope invested in their young, still maturing SS Starlin Castro, who draws inspiration from his teammate.
"As happy as he is about the work he has done, we have spoken about who he wants to be in the future," Barney said "One of the best things he did say to me that made me feel really good is he said, 'Hey man, you're the best defensive player I have ever seen and I want to be like you.' Coming from a guy who has every tool in the bag that means a lot. We are good friends and I hope our relationship keeps getting better and better."
That relationship is valuable on the field. Improving, even surviving, at the MLB level takes a lot of hard work. That isn't anything new to Barney. He hasn't been blessed with the tools and natural abilities that Starlin Castro has. He'd had to work for everything he has to this point. Castro may not have had to work as hard as Barney to become an MLB player, but he does have to work every bit as hard to reach that next level.
"We decided early on in spring training that we were going to work hard together to be the best that we can up the middle," Barney said. "Our goal is to be the best around, and that is what we are working towards. In the future, we will have to get better together and hopefully that is what we can do."
So maybe the Cubs are doing more than looking at this as a piece-by-piece rebuild. Perhaps they are also building in terms of units -- or at least tandems. After all, when you're talking core pieces, you're talking about guys who fit the big picture. Barney certainly seems to be that kind of player.
It may be that someday someone wrests the job from Barney -- and there are no shortage of candidates in the pipeline, but I wouldn't bet on that being very easy. We tend to focus on Barney's offense and look for an upgrade, but considering everything else he brings to the table, that offense may have to be a substantial upgrade to unseat him. And, here's a question you may not have thought much about: If Barney solidifies his status as a core member next season, might they even consider extending him?