Should Darwin Barney be looking over his shoulder?

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Darwin Barney

Cubs’ second baseman Darwin Barney’s reelection to retain his starting position might be down to the 69 games remaining in the Cubs’ 2013 regular season.  Perhaps the voters will give him a reprieve and he will earn one more year to prove that he deserves to be elected to the same six year terms awarded to teammates Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.  What is undeniable is that a hard-charging challenger in the Cubs’ system, Arismendy Alcantara, has to be making Barney feel a little skittish these days.
No will ever dispute that Darwin Barney is a superb defensive second baseman.  In addition to committing only three errors since Opening Day 2012, Barney ranges far to his left and right to make difficult plays.  However, how much can a slick glove compensate for offensive deficiencies?  Among all major league second baseman with a minimum of 275 plate appearances, Barney ranks last in batting average (.222) and in on-base-percentage (.272), and his .344 slugging percentage bests only the Chicago White Sox’s Jeff Keppinger.  Barney’s WARP (Wins Above a Replacement Player), of 0.0, a Saber-metrics tool used by many major league front offices, is better than only two second basemen on the qualifying list.
To compound matters, Barney’s production has plummeted in each of his three full seasons in the major leagues.  His batting average has dropped from .274 to .254 to .222; and his OBP has fallen from .313 to .299 to .272.  While he is on pace to eclipse his career highs in home runs and doubles, his overall production has diminished.
Now if Barney is looking over his shoulder, what player in the Cubs’ system might be causing him restlessness?  AA Tennessee Smokies’ switch-hitting second-baseman Alcantara, fresh off an appearance in the Futures Game in which he laced an upper deck home run, tops the list of Barney’s challengers.  Until the Cubs traded SS Ronald Torreyes to the Houston Astros earlier this month for additional International pool money, Alcantara, 21 and in his fifth season in the Cubs’ system, had seen the majority of his action at shortstop, his preferred position.  Following the Torreyes trade, Alcantara has settled in at second base and indicated he is willing to play anywhere that helps expedite his promotion to the Cubs.
Cubs’ Senior Vice President of Scouting and Player Development Jason McLeod has loosely compared Alcantara to Philadelphia Phillies star middle-infielder Jimmy Rollins.  For the season, Alcantara has averaged .280.  His thirteen home runs rank fourth in the Southern League, and his 23 doubles are tied with teammate 3B Christian Villanueva for the league lead.  He has also driven in 45 runs, good for ninth in the league, and his 22 steals place him in a sixth place tie.  Significantly, he has only been caught stealing three times.  And after combining for 35 walks in his last three seasons, he has already taken 38 free passes this season, also among the league leaders.
While Alcantara’s overall minor league fielding percentage of .905 is nowhere Barney’s minor league percentage of .962, it should be noted that Alcantara’s fielding percentage this season as a second baseman is a respectable .960.  And Barney is a case study in how players can improve defensively:  he committed 70 errors in six minor league seasons yet has committed only eighteen in four seasons as a Cub and three in the last two years.
Finally, Barney will be entering his first of three arbitration years with the Cubs next season, meaning he will not be a free agent until 2017.  The Cubs almost always promote players to the parent club from AAA and have yet to give any indication that a promotion to AAA for Alcantara this season is imminent.  So Barney still could have time to build a case for re-election.  Alcantara, a switch hitter, must improve his performance against left-handed pitching.  He is averaging only .229 with one home run against southpaws this season.
Lastly, it should be noted that of Barney’s 1866 fielding opportunities in the minor leagues, 1800, an overwhelming majority, came as a shortstop.  Barney also has experience playing third base in both the minors and majors.  If Alcantara or 2011 first round pick Javier Baez, assuming the latter is forced to make a position change from shortstop to accommodate incumbent Starlin Castro (or vice versa), seizes second base, Barney could seamlessly adjust to a role as a super-utility infielder.  But there is no question that Barney’s days before a restless electorate could be numbered.


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