There's much more to Cubs' Barney than offense

Updated 8/16/2012 9:49 PM
  • Darwin Barney, here tagging out the Astros' Tyler Greene an a stolen-base attempt, has made it his personal mission to become a solid defensive second baseman.

    Darwin Barney, here tagging out the Astros' Tyler Greene an a stolen-base attempt, has made it his personal mission to become a solid defensive second baseman. Associated Press

Darwin Barney is beating the rap.

You know the rap: career utility player, too small, plays three positions OK but not great and won't hit enough to start every day.

Well, you can put the wraps on that rap.

Entering this weekend's series at Cincinnati, the Cubs' second baseman will take the field refreshed and ready after getting a rare day off Wednesday followed by Thursday's off-day in the schedule.

Barney is holding his own at the plate, with a hitting line of .269/.310/.389 with a career-best 6 home runs and an RBI total of 35, putting him just 8 behind the 43 he had all of last year.

But it's been on defense where Barney is really shining, to the point where he is a bona fide Gold Glove candidate.

The 26-year-old Barney owns a single-season club-record 101 straight errorless games at second base, with his last miscue at second coming way back on April 17. His .998 fielding percentage leads all major-league second basemen, and few chase down popups better.

Cubs third-base coach Pat Listach works daily with the infielders, and he wasn't sounding like an I-told-you-so when he said there was no doubt Barney could do the job every day.

"Last year, when I came back to be bench coach and Mike (former manager Quade) and I were talking about the team, we discussed Darwin Barney," Listach began. "I said, 'You know what? This guy isn't a utility player. This guy's an everyday player.'

"We were looking at him as a utility guy: play short, play third, play second. But the guy proved us all wrong. He's not a utility player at all."

Here's something else remarkable about Barney: He has learned to be a second baseman on the fly after starring as a College World Series champion shortstop at Oregon State and coming up through the Cubs' system as a shortstop.

But while Barney was enjoying an all-star season at shortstop for the Cubs' Class AAA Iowa club in 2010, along came Starlin Castro to leapfrog him from Class AA Tennessee in May of that year.

"I took a lot of pride growing up in being a shortstop," he said. "I spent my whole life trying to perfect that position. When Starlin Castro got called up from Double-A, I was in Triple-A leading the league in fielding percentage and hitting, and they called up Starlin Castro.

"For me, it was a time to sit back a little bit. 'OK, what do I have to do? What kind of player do I have to be?'"

Fortunately for Barney, his manager at Iowa was Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg.

"Sandberg and I worked real hard at second base before games," Barney recalled. "I didn't play much in the minor leagues, maybe twice. They told my last year in Triple-A, 'Hey, we're going to play you at second and short every other game.'

"So I started Opening Day at second and didn't play there ever again. It was just one of those things where we put a lot of hours in early before BP (batting practice) at second base, kind of learning the ropes a little bit. But I kept trying to perfect that shortstop spot."

Nowadays, Barney looks like a natural second base. That's not to say that it has come naturally.

"I put a lot of work into it," he said. "Getting a year under my belt at the second-base position, I think, was big. I reflected and thought about what were the plays I got in trouble on, the plays that were tough for me.

"Coming out early and having four or five coaches that played middle infield helps. From Day 1, Dave McKay and Skip (manager Dale Sveum) were working with me around the bag, and Listach has been huge. He's on me all the time to keep my work up.

"He's doing a lot of work on the positioning stuff that really helps on the range. If you're trying to play where they're hitting the hard balls, that will lengthen out your range because you're going to get to the ones they don't hit so hard and play the position where they are hitting them hard.

"He's doing the hours of homework watching these guys' groundballs on video."

When the Cubs play the Reds this weekend, Barney will go eye to eye and glove to glove with second baseman Brandon Phillips, the incumbent Gold Glove winner. Phillips' fielding percentage entering Thursday was .996, and he also was a tick below Barney in some of the other advanced defensive metrics.

However, Gold Gloves often are won on reputation, and incumbents are tough to unseat.

"It's pretty spectacular, some of the things he does," Barney said. "He's the best in the game. When I was first making that transition to second base, we were playing the Cincinnati Reds in spring training.

"Brandon was at second base after the end of their inning. I kind of asked him, "Hey, man, I'm moving to second base. What do you have on your second-base turns? I saw you working on them.'

"He stood out there and talked to me for a couple of minutes between innings about my hand positioning and stuff like that. From that day, I've had a lot of respect for him, the guy he is and the way he plays the game defensively.

"He's good. You can't take anything away except for the fact that he's the Gold Glove guy at second base right now, not me."

Barney also isn't about to dis Sandberg. Even though Barney holds the single-season errorless-game streak for a Cubs second baseman, Sandberg holds the all-time record of 123, over the 1989 and 1990 seasons.

"I haven't shot that text message that way yet," Barney said. "What does he have, seven or eight Gold Gloves in a row there? (Actually nine.) I got nothing on Sandberg. Playing on this field and getting (nine) Gold Gloves at second base for him? That's phenomenal.

"I got absolutely nothing on Ryne Sandberg. Let's make that clear. He definitely was that guy. I played on four teams for him in the minor leagues coming up.

"We spent a lot of time talking about things, talking about routines. He's one of the first guys that told me about that, what a routine can do for you. So I took that."

Barney has taken it and run with it. And it comes as no surprise to his current infield coach.

"Surprised?" asked Listach. "No. Am I pleased with the progress he's made? Definitely. But nothing surprises me that he does. The guy is a gamer.

"He's been called an overachiever many times before, but you know what? I just think he's a good player. That's just what he is.

"He won two national championships in college. He's won everywhere in the minor leagues he's been. And he's a winner. You can win with him. That's what he is."

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