Here is the big question when it comes to Darwin Barney: Is his stellar defense at second base enough to offset a lack of production at the plate?
For the last couple of years, the Cubs have answered in the affirmative.
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Let's be clear. Barney is a good ballplayer. He probably should have won a second consecutive Gold Glove last year. Instead, Brandon Phillips reclaimed the Gold, perhaps because of his offense prowess. Barney makes good decisions on the field and rarely commits mental gaffes.
And when he was going for the Gold Glove in 2012, he did not protect an errorless streak by playing it safe. The Cubs are an offensive-challenged team. They need more from everybody, including Barney. If there isn't a significant upgrade in his offensive game this year, he could be out of a starting job as early as the summer, with the Cubs having young infielders on the rise.
Barney's batting line last year was .208/.266/.303 with 7 home runs and 41 RBI. His OPS-plus was a meager 56.
If there is a glimmer of hope for Barney at the bat, it's that his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .222, the lowest among qualified players.
In other words, if some of those balls that were caught last year fall in this year -- as they should if luck evens out -- Barney's batting average and OBP should improve.
Barney is one of those players who rarely walks and rarely strikes out. His contact rate was 90.9 percent, but his flyball rate jumped from 29.9 percent in 2012 to 35.5 percent last year. Because he's not a power hitter, a lot of those flyballs nestled safely into the gloves of opposing outfielders.
Although Barney's defensive wins above replacement (dWAR) was 1.5, his overall WAR was minus-0.5, putting him below "replacement level."
The new edition of Baseball Prospectus weighs in thusly, as written by the BP staff: "Barney is a better ballplayer than last year's sub-replacement numbers indicate, but is by no means a building block. While our metrics weren't fond of his defense, others still show him to be a plus glove at the keystone, with sure hands, tremendous instincts and a strong arm making up for pedestrian range.
"At the plate he's a contact hitter with little power and a mediocre walk rate, making his value highly dependent on how many singles fall in … With a more realistic BABIP his bat should rebound from abysmal to merely subpar, making Barney an ideal utility infielder but a lineup drag when he's penciled in every day."
That echoes something we've said in this space for a while: Barney could be a nice piece on a contending team as a part-time starter and late-inning defensive replacement who comes in late in games to help protect leads.
Barney's future with the Cubs likely will be determined by what happens when shortstop phenom Javier Baez comes up. Will Baez move to second base or will Starlin Castro move to second? Third base appears to be the long-term landing spot of Kris Bryant, last year's top draft pick.
The Cubs gave a look-see last year at second to Logan Watkins, who has played second base in the minor leagues and who has put up a good OBP. Other infielders in the system include Arismendy Alcantara and Jeimer Candelario.