Darwin Barney is a throwback middle infielder, and to the surprise of many, a Rookie-of-the-Year candidate. The 25-year-old Oregon State product came into spring training battling for a backup position, but instead established himself as the Cubs everyday second baseman. His skill set is more Glenn Beckert [fans under the age of 40 may need to look him up] than Starlin Castro, but there is nothing wrong with being scrappy when you’re hitting .297 and playing quality defense. In Barney’s opinion, there is also nothing wrong with following instructions from Carlos Zambrano. As for the infield surface of Wrigley Field…well, the youngster is a fan of historic ballparks.
David Laurila: This year’s Baseball America Prospect Handbook says of you: “He isn’t flashy, but he’s the best defensive infielder in the organization, including the majors.” Do you agree with that?
Darwin Barney: I make the play that needs to be made. I’m not going to…if there’s a line drive somewhere, or a one-hopper, I’m not going to throw my glove up in the air and try to make a catch. I’m going to try to back up on it and make it look as easy as possible. When it comes to being flashy — and there are a lot of descriptions of flashy — my job is to get outs. However I can accomplish that, that’s what I’m going to do.
You can take a line drive up the middle and flag at it, and make a great play, or you can miss it and not get an error. Conversely, if you get there and kind of just drop down to try to make the play, a lot of times you’re given an error because you didn’t make it look flashy. But the object is to get the job done and you’re going to make errors in this game. They’re going to happen, so you just do the best you can to make every play. That’s what I’m out there for.
DL: Are you a better second baseman or a better shortstop?
DB: I feel more comfortable at shortstop. I’ve played shortstop my whole life, but I spent a lot of time this off-season focusing on second base, so I feel very comfortable at both positions. It’s hard to say which I’m better at. I’d say that, right now, I’m in the right spot for this team. I have no complaints.
DL: What are the keys to being a good defensive infielder?
DB: So many things are going through your mind between every play. I’m thinking about base runners, wind, who is on the mound, what kind of swings the batters are taking, this pitch, that pitch. You can’t make adjustments just for each at bat, you have to make adjustments between each pitch. Once you run all of those things through your mind, and are prepared to play, you just kind of let it happen from there.
You also need to catch the ball first. A lot of guys get rushed, so the key is to make that catch and then worry about the next part after that.
DL: How important is positioning?
DB: As an organization, it’s something we’re always working on. [Bench coach] Pat Listach has a lot of scouting reports put together for us on defense — where guys are spraying the ball. I like to take a good long look at that, and I’ll move around. He’s not afraid to move me, as well. It’s a big part of the game. You want to play the numbers.
When [Carlos] Zambrano is on the mound, he doesn’t care much about the numbers. He wants me where he wants me, where he feels like this guy is going to go. He’ll move me left or right, and I’m receptive to that. I’m keeping an eye on him and if he wants to move me this way or that way, I’m going to do it.
The thing with Zambrano is that he’s been pitching for a long time and knows what he’s trying to do with each guy. A lot of times he’ll look at me and kind of move me one way or the other, and he’s not too worried about the spray charts. He’s worried about what he thinks that guy is going to do in this particular at bat.
DL: Is Zambrano unique in that respect?
DB: It’s pretty unique. You have to know your teammates. [Matt] Garza is a guy who says, “Hey, go with the spray chart; I don’t care where you play.” He wants me to play where I think I need to play, where Pat wants me to play. Zambrano is different; he wants to move me in different situations. It just depends on who is on the mound, along with who is hitting and what we’re trying to do.
DL: What is it like working with Starlin Castro?
DB: Castro is pretty unbelievable. When I was 21 years old…I’m just imagining the things that were going on in my head and what I was doing. That’s a whole different planet than where he’s at now. The guy has already been successful and if he keeps working hard he can be pretty damn good in this game.
It’s fun working with a guy who is so athletic and gets to a lot of balls. He gives us an opportunity to do a lot of things up the middle, especially turning double plays, so it’s fun and exciting. We like to feed off of each other, and I’m having a lot of fun with that right now.
DL: How important is communication in the middle of the infield?
DB: We’re always communicating. I think that’s the key to our success up the middle together so far, and our key to feeling comfortable. We’re going to talk as much as we need to. We’re going to go through situations during games. You need to be on the same page with your fellow middle infielder, because you really do work as a unit. That’s something we’re good at; we’re good at communicating. We’re good friends and know what each other is trying to do. That makes our jobs easier.
DL: How does the infield surface at Wrigley Field compare to other places you’ve played?
DB: You know, my philosophy on that is that you never talk bad about your own field, so whatever it is, I love it. Coming from wherever it is that we’ve all come from, growing up on high school fields and college fields, you really can’t complain with the surfaces here.
It’s Wrigley. It has its history and it has its hops. You have to be ready for anything, especially with all these day games. The sixth, seventh inning come around and the field is playing a lot like a field in Arizona would play, whereas in the first few innings it will play a lot softer. You just have to make adjustments. You can’t any ground balls for granted at Wrigley Field.
DL: You’re about to play your first-ever game at Fenway Park. Do you know how the infield plays here?
DB: No, I’ll just go out there and feel it out, and try to get comfortable. And if I don’t feel comfortable, I usually just stop taking grounders, because there is no point in getting more and more uncomfortable. I’ve never been on this surface, but I’m sure it will be fine.
It’s one of those things where everybody deals with it differently. Some people look at a bad field and think they’re going to do something differently, like retreat on a ball, or charge more balls. For me, it’s just dealing with each play as it’s hit at me, at that time, and whatever the field brings is what it brings.
DL: What is the hitting environment like at Wrigley?
DB: It’s good. Being at home is always good. Wrigley Field is exciting. There is a lot of history there. These two ballparks, Fenway and Wrigley, are very similar that way. It’s electric late in the game when you have an opportunity to do something good for your team, and that’s all you can ask for. I enjoy hitting at Wrigley.
DL: You’ve been criticized for not being patient enough at the plate. Is that fair?
DB: Patience means a lot of different things. Does it mean that you’re going to walk? Do you walk just because you’re patient? For me, when I have guys like Castro, [Marlon] Byrd, [Carlos] Pena and [Aramis] Ramirez hitting behind me…the pitchers aren’t trying to walk me. They’re trying to get me out on pitches that I put into play; they’re going to come right after me.
I take walks in stride. That’s not something I think about. My job isn’t to worry about what other people are criticizing me for and telling me what I need to get better at. I’ll definitely take a walk whenever I can, but when you’re hitting in the two-hole for the Chicago Cubs, in front of great hitters like I am, sometimes they’re not so easy to come by.
I don’t strike out much, which maybe evens it out. Maybe that goes to show that I am getting strikes and not swinging out of the zone.
DL: You played for Ryne Sandberg coming up through the minor leagues. What did you learn from him?
DB: What I learned from Ryno is how to approach the game, how to get a consistent routine. He and I had the same routine every day. We worked hard and we got better. He was never a guy who had to teach me how to field a ground ball or how to hit in a situation. We kind of got on the same page after being on the same team together for a couple of years.
Once I started making the transition to second base, he was there for me and helped me out a lot. He did a lot of little things with me. We’d go out to work early and he’d help me with my turns. I owe a lot to Sandberg. We’re good friends and along with having been a great player, he’s an awesome person.
DL: Any final thoughts?
DB: I think of a lot of things when I play on a field like this. I think of the history and the guys who played here. I grew up a Red Sox fan, which makes it even more special. There is the Pesky Pole, the Wall, Ted Williams, and all the others who have played on the field I’m about to play on. I’m going to savor it as much as I can. I have a lot of respect for the people who have played this game, whether it was here or at Wrigley.
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