For the better part of three years, Darwin Barney was the starter at second base for the Chicago Cubs. Coming in 2014, we knew things looked a little hazier, given his (very) down 2013 season, the makeup of the roster, the arrival of a new manager, and the impending arrival of infield prospects.
Still, it was reasonable to expect that Barney would nominally remain the starter at second base, even if he was giving up semi-regular starts to Emilio Bonifacio and/or Luis Valbuena.
How has it played out? Well, so far, Barney has pretty much started only against lefties, against whom he does sport a 79-point split advantage in his career. Of course, Barney isn’t really in there for his bat, but there’s not a better option at second base against lefties anyway, assuming you want to max out the number of right-handed bats in the lineup on a given day. And the platooning, you could argue, has worked out: Barney is hitting .200/.429/.200, which is one of those weird lines you’ll only see in April. Of course, must of his damage has come against righties, so maybe I’ll just let this whole point slide for now.
Emilio Bonifacio’s emergence has really been the primary impediment to Barney getting more starts, because Bonifacio isn’t going to sit with regularity any time soon. When there’s a righty on the mound, the most obvious spot to put Bonifacio is at second base, given the presence of three lefty bats available in the outfield. In other words, sitting Barney so far against righties has had less to do with Barney, and more to do with wanting Bonifacio in there (as well as Ryan Sweeney and Ryan Kalish in the outfield, and Luis Valbuena at third).
It’s a really tough spot for the Cubs with respect to Barney, assuming they wanted to consider shopping him this year. You’d love to be able to show the baseball world that he’s good enough to start every day on your (probably bad) team; if he’s not, then how can you justify telling a contender that Barney should be starting for them? I’m a bit surprised at the extent to which Barney has become the weak side of a platoon so early in the season, even as I agree that it’s likely the right move. You just don’t see this kind of thing with entrenched, well-liked starters, but it’s a credit to Ricky Renteria that we haven’t really heard about any waves.
That said, if this continues to be Barney’s role, I think we’re going to see the Cubs make an effort to move Barney to a team where he could see more playing time. Don’t expect a significant return, though the Cubs could probably net a worth-discussing prospect. Given the impending arrival of guys like Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara, and the fact that infield glut already pushed him to a reduced role before those guys even arrived, Barney remains a non-tender candidate for the Cubs after this season (he’s in his first year of arbitration, and remains under control for two more years).
For his part, Barney tells the Sun-Times that he recognizes his role with the Cubs has changed, and he understands that he can’t hide from last year.
Barney’s a smart guy, and I’m sure he can see what’s coming in the future: a utility role with the Cubs (after a likely non-tender and a renegotiated salary for 2015), or a trade to another team where he might have a chance of being a glove-first shortstop or second baseman, and seeing more regular starts. If there’s a team out there on which Barney could see regular starts in 2014 and beyond, I’d think all sides would be on board with making that happen. If not, maybe there can be a successful utility transition for Barney and the Cubs. It doesn’t strike me as likely, but you never rule anything out.
Until then – and we probably won’t hear too much in the way of Barney trade rumors until June or July (the last batch of rumors having died down when the season started) – the Cubs will have to continue to balance the interests of playing the best lineup, playing the right guys for development, and showcasing players with marginal trade value.