This particular position is getting near a state of flux for the Cubs. There is the current starter coming off a bad year, a few MLB ready alternatives, and at least one top 10 prospect knocking on the door.
The Cubs love Darwin Barney’s defense, especially the pitchers. He’s also been a great influence on Starlin Castro, who continues to make strides with his own defense.
But there’s the problem with that bat. It has regressed every season since he became the surprise starter in 2011. It sunk to new lows last season as Barney hit .208/.266/.308. That translates to a cringe-worthy wOBA of .252 and replacement level WAR of 0.4 overall. That was partially aided by an impossibly low BABIP of .222. Some of the blame goes to a drop in his line drive % and an increase in fly ball %.
You don’t need to be a professional hitting coach to know that Barney shouldn’t be hitting more fly balls. That seemed to be a general trend with more than a few Cubs hitters last season and while it upped their power totals, there was a price to pay. BABIPs went down and so did the batting averages and BABIP. But it may have had the greatest negative effect on Barney who doesn’t have the raw power to survive hitting too many balls in the air.
My guess is that those decreasing line drive rates and BABIP played a factor when the Cubs fired hitting coach James Rowson and with him, asst. hitting coach Rob Deer, and manager/part-time hitting coach Dale Sveum — and then hired Bill Mueller as hitting coach, a batter more known for his good approach and his all fields line drive stroke.
I think Barney is among those that will benefit most from the change. But the question is how much?
Steamer forecasts a bounce back with Barney’s BABIP, up nearly 50 points to .271 (roughly what it was in 2012), but even that will yield only a .248/.300/.344 season.
If we want to be optimistic, we can hope that Mueller will give Barney a slight boost and perhaps get that BABIP as high as it was in 2011, which was around the league average at .310. And then you can couple that with the one part of Barney’s offensive game that has quietly improved over the past 3 seasons — his walk rate. Starting at 3.9% in 2011, it went up to 5.6% in 2012 and then a career high of 6.5% last season.
Hypothetically, what might happen if Barney bounces all the way back to around a .300 BABIP and continues to improve his walk rate? Let’s make it a rather modest increase and call it 7% for 2014. We’ll also keep his ISO at last years .096. What kind of offensive player would Barney be then?
Using Steamer’s numbers with the increased BABIP and walk rate and some quick cocktail napkin calculations, you get the following highly optimistic scenario for Barney.
.273/.329/.369 and around a .310 wOBA
That is still a below average player on offense but if you factor in what is expected to be top shelf defense, you’re looking at about a 2.6 WAR player, roughly a league average starter. It would be a career season and a remarkable turnaround.
But obviously that’s a best case scenario and one that I doubt the Cubs are counting on. Perhaps the biggest issue confronting Barney is a salary that will steadily escalate through arbitration. Though the amount isn’t going to cripple the payroll, it will soon become an issue for the Cubs as to whether they want to pay even a modest salary for a defense only player, especially when we consider the aforementioned best case offensive scenario is unlikely to play out.
Barney is the 2B for now, but he doesn’t appear to be the long term solution. If Barney rebounds on offense and draws some interest from contending teams, we may see him move on at some point this season as the Cubs begin the process of creating roster space for up and coming prospects.
But he is the 2B right now and as long as that’s the case, he’ll do what he can to hold on to it.
So what are the short-term alternatives?
- Starting Mike Olt and moving the Luis Valbuena/Donnie Murphy platoon to 2B
We talked about this platoon in our 3B preview and, combined with the Cody Ransom interlude, this was a pretty productive platoon for the Cubs at 3B. At 2B, those offensive numbers play even better, though the defense would take a hit without Barney there and some of that offensive value gained would be lost.
As a reader mentioned, however, it’d be roughly the equivalent of upgrading from Darwin Barney to Mike Olt on offense assuming the Valbuena/Murphy platoon production stays constant.
- Start Logan Watkins at 2B
There was a lot of clamoring to start Logan Watkins at 2B, and rightfully so, toward the end of the season. Barney was struggling and the Cubs were well out of contention. It seemed worth giving him a look as the season came to a close.
With Arismendy Alcantara ready for AAA, it would seem Watkins will not go back to Iowa. It’s hard to imagine the Cubs would be all that eager to keep Watkins on the bench and stunt the 24 year old’s development.
If we look at Steamer, which has a very limited sample size of PAs for Watkins, we’re looking at a .239/.310/.345 season from Watkins, a slightly better offensive performance than Steamer has for Barney. Watkins is a solid defender, but like most 2Bs in baseball right now, he’d be a drop off on defense.
I think Watkins’ best scenario for playing time would be for Olt to return to AAA and for Watkins to gradually steal ABs from Barney as the season went on, perhaps with the upside of getting into a platoon situation by midseason.
The most likely scenario for Watkins, however, is as a utility player this year who can provide some speed and a LH bat off the bench.
- Chris Valaika is primarily a 2B but has a shot at a utility role because he can man SS for short stretches. He could also see some time against LHP if Barney is traded. If he doesn’t make the team out of spring, the Cubs could instead send him to Iowa as MLB depth.
- If the 3B platoon moves to 2B and Murphy struggles, there’s also Ryan Roberts, who is the better defender but did not put up the kind of offensive numbers Murphy did last season.
Down on the Farm
Arismendy Alcantara is expected to start the season in AAA and he brings a skill set that is rather unique in the Cubs organization in that he can switch-hit and has better than average speed. Sprinkle in his ability to get on base via his bat or the walk, and you have the kind of top of the order hitter the Cubs lack right now.
Alcantara had his first full season last year at AA after injuries cut short his previous two years in full season ball. There is no way the 22 year old is ready for the big leagues this spring. He needs to improve his performance from the right side of the plate, cut down his throwing errors (which should go down with his move to 2B), and improve his stamina.
Alcantara is a quick-twitched, high energy athlete with a rather slight build. He wore down a bit by the end of the season, but after making through the year in one piece, then getting just limited action in winter ball, he should be ready for a fresh start next season.
Defensively, he needs to work on slowing the game down and improving his footwork. He has more than enough range and arm strength for the position. He just needs to be more consistent.
Even with improvement on defense, offense will be his calling card. He has the potential to be a dynamic offensive player When he’s ready, he should add OBP skills, speed, and some surprising pop, as shown by his solid showing at AA last year (.271/.352/.451 with 15 HRs and 31 SBs in just 37 attempts). Professor Parks of BP called him “Jose Reyes light”. I’m sure Cubs fans would be thrilled if he could add anything near that kind of dynamic at the top of the order.
Javier Baez is a SS right now and the talk is that barring any unforeseen changes, he will learn a new position as he gets closer to the big leagues.
Moving to 2B, however, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can take advantage of his instincts and high energy style of play with a more demanding, more involved defensive position. His expected big power numbers would also play up at 2B.
The downside is with more involvement comes greater opportunity for injury. He will have to deal with more baserunners, including some with his back turned as he moves to the bag on potential DP ground balls.
Thankfully, the Cubs don’t need to make that decision now, but don’t be surprised if they get a sneak peek this spring with Baez getting some innings at both 2B and 3B.
The Cubs picked up Walter Ibarra, Edgar Gonzalez, and Jeudy Valdez for minor league depth purposes. They should start the season in AAA or perhaps AA in Valdez’s case and be ready in the event the Cubs run into injury problems in the middle infield.
Filed under: position by position analysis