Darwin Barney: Trade or Keep?

It’s amazing what defense can do. Darwin Barney, who I’ve written about relatively extensively in the past, has been one of my favorite whipping boys for offensive ineptitude for some time.

While that still remains true, as Barney’s line currently sits at an unimpressive .263 AVG/.304 OBP/.369 SLG heading into the weekend series with the Cardinals, something has changed with the Cubs’ middle infielder.

We’ve known for some time that Barney is a solid defender, but this year he’s truly taken the next step and become far and away the best defensive second baseman in baseball. Currently the owner of a 3.1 defensive WAR (wins above replacement), the next closest second baseman is New York’s Robinson Cano, who has a 1.3 defensive WAR.

I’ll be the first to admit that defensive statistics have quite a way to go before they are as reliable and valuable as offensive statistics, but they have made great strides over the last decade and dWAR is one of the better ones out there.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s look at a few others. First, UZR, or Ultimate Zone Rating.

In this department, Barney again ranks first with a 6.3 UZR, with Alexi Casilla coming in second with an even 6. Obviously, this stat is not all inclusive and it’s not my favorite defensive stat, but it does play a part in painting the picture of a player’s defensive ability and it’s still leaps and bounds ahead of simply counting errors.

Moving on to Defensive Runs Saved, Barney’s name tops the list yet again with an impressive 25. In case you wondered, the next best second baseman by this statistic, Casilla, has 11 (Cano has 10, for what it’s worth).

What all of this brings me to is that, almost unbelievably, Barney has turned himself into not only an average player, but a legitimately valuable asset. I’ll admit, in most (well, pretty much all) cases I’ll argue for offensive output above defensive output, but Barney appears to have actually reached that rare level where his completely mediocre offensive skillset has been made irrelevant by his absolutely outstanding defense.

Another interesting caveat to Barney’s value to this team is the player that stands directly to his right. Starlin Castro, who has taken more than his fair share of heat for what, at times, have been pretty abhorrent defensive lapses, has quickly grown into a stellar defender himself.

Castro currently ranks third in baseball, behind Brendan Ryan and Andrelton Simmons, with a 7.3 UZR; fourth in defensive runs saved, behind Ryan, Simmons and Yunel Escobar with 13.2; and third in dWAR, behind Ryan and Escobar, with an even 2.

As it stands, the Cubs have what is almost without a doubt the best defensive middle infield in baseball. With Rizzo making a pretty good name for himself at first as well, it might be worth it for the Cubs to hold onto Barney as a key part of their future plans. As long as they can find enough offense between Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Brett Jackson, Jorge Soler, Josh Vitters and any other pieces that may one day fit into the Cubs’ puzzle, the value of having what could be the best defensive infield in baseball from shortstop to first base could be well worth the downside of Barney’s weak bat.

All of that said, I wouldn’t be opposed to letting the young second baseman go in the right deal, but for the first time since Barney broke into the major leagues, I’m actually starting to like the idea of him as the long-term solution at second base for the Cubs.

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