MESA, Ariz. — Three or four steps from Darwin Barney’s locker, there’s a table in the middle of the room with a big fruit plate, an outgoing mail basket and copies of Baseball America’s latest issue.
Javier Baez is one of the images on a cover that screams: “OUR 2014 TOP 100 PROSPECTS.” With five in the top 15, the prospect bible predicts “the next golden era of shortstops.”
But the Cubs believe Starlin Castro is their franchise shortstop. Someone in the Cubs Park clubhouse could eventually take Barney’s job at second base, but it’s probably not Emilio Bonifacio.
Baseball America ranked infielder Arismendy Alcantara at No. 100 on that hot list. Luis Valbuena is another solid utility guy. Second baseman Logan Watkins was the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2012. So there are a lot of moving parts here when new manager Rick Renteria gives his version of: Darwin Barney is our second baseman.
“My job is to come here every day and get better and work hard and get ready for Opening Day,” Barney said. “You have to prove that you’ve made strides in your game after a season like last year. But I don’t feel like I’m going to put extra pressure on myself. I’m going to work hard and play hard. I’m going to have fun and try to help this team win.”
Barney went out and hustled for an infield single and homered onto the left-field berm during Friday’s 15-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium. All this won’t stop the trade speculation that will link Barney to teams ready to win now.
Bonifacio’s leadoff triple in Thursday’s Cactus League opener brought these issues to the surface and created questions for Renteria after a 5-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Bonifacio’s a change-of-pace guy with 138 career stolen bases and a .327 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot.
Bonifacio also got released by the Kansas City Royals, cleared waivers and signed a minor-league deal with the Cubs that will be worth $2.5 million plus incentives when he makes the team. He will turn 29 in April and has already bounced around five different teams.
“Wherever (Bonifacio) plays — whether it’s second base, shortstop, center field — he’s a guy who can spark the lineup,” Barney said. “You’re in competition with everybody around the league every single day. There are only so many positions in this game at this level.
“I look at it as him being a teammate and someone who can help us win — and not necessarily as I’m trying to beat him out or he’s trying to beat me out. Whatever happens, happens.”
Barney is a Gold Glove defender and a steadying influence for Castro. Barney played with Jacoby Ellsbury at Oregon State University and won two College World Series titles there. Theo Epstein’s front office recognizes that Barney’s intangibles are valuable.
As Renteria said: “I don’t think (Barney) came into the spring worried about who he is.”
But the Cubs are going to need more than a .208 average and a .569 OPS, especially from someone who’s 28 years old and will make $2.3 million this season. Barney’s regression — along with core players like Castro and Anthony Rizzo — became part of the narrative when Epstein fired manager Dale Sveum last year.
“I feel like I’m going to be more consistent,” Barney said. “I have confidence in myself and the work that I’ve done and the stuff we’ve done with (new hitting coach Bill Mueller). We’ll see how it goes moving forward.”
Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg once helped Barney, a natural shortstop, learn the intricacies of the position at Triple-A Iowa when Castro took that huge leap from Double-A Tennessee and made his big-league debut in May 2010.
That year Barney hit leadoff and played second base in Lou Piniella’s final game as manager at Wrigley Field. Barney lived through the rise and fall of Mike Quade. Under Sveum, Barney took his defense to the next level while his offensive game suffered.
Barney bought into The Cubs Way. It must be weird looking around the room now.
“Yeah, I find myself limping around this clubhouse seeing all these young guys,” Barney joked. “That’s just part of the gig, man. You have to earn that and I haven’t yet. It’s only been three-and-a-half years. So in many clubhouses, I’m still the young guy.
“We got a good group of young guys that are hungry and want to make it to the big leagues and want to play every day. That’s fun to watch. But in the end, we have jobs to do and we got to take care of our business.”