Sox, Cubs count on young infielders
Barney and Morel to play key roles for their respective Chicago teams
MESA, Ariz. -- Rejoice, anti-dentites; Darwin Barney's post-baseball career was just delayed by another year at least.
After surviving cut-down day Thursday, Barney is starting the season on the Cubs' major league roster and should be the starting second baseman on Opening Day.
So long, dental school.
The 25-year-old Portland, Ore., native is from a family of dentists, with his father and brother practicing the profession. He entered Oregon State as a predental student and left with one year remaining to complete his liberal studies degree.
Tooth be told, Barney's baseball career has never been better. He's going to have a major impact on the Cubs this season, provided they don't do some blockbuster deal to get Michael Young or the marketing department doesn't start a "Who Wants to Be a Second Baseman, presented by Nuts on Clark" promotion.
The Cubs came into camp with two roster questions: second base and a fifth outfielder. Reed Johnson made the club over Fernando Perez, and Barney made it over Bobby Scales, Augie Ojeda and Scott Moore. It wasn't a big surprise. Barney made a good impression with the Cubs late last season.
Manager Mike Quade said Blake DeWitt, who has had a bad spring, will back up third base, while Barney is set at second and is the presumptive backup at shortstop.
"He's played himself into significant time, and that time will be determined," Quade said. "It's spring training. He's making progress. He does a lot of things outside of the batter's box that you really like. He's given himself every chance to be an important part of this infield."
Barney was hitting .359 with three doubles and four RBIs going into Thursday's game with the White Sox. He singled and scored in the bottom of the first, and hit a two-run triple in the fifth. Sure, the latter was off Will Ohman, but still, it counts.
Knowing he had a real shot to make the roster, Barney lived in Arizona for most of the winter, and worked out with strength guru Tim Buss, hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and the assorted players who hung out at the Mesa complex.
Marlon Byrd has taken to him, even giving him some pointed advice about dealing with the media, but mostly about being a "first player in" type of guy.
"I'm going to keep the same routine," Barney said. "I'm going to keep working hard, get in the cage every day and try to get right. Just stick to do what I'm doing; I'm not going to change a thing. It's good to know phase one is done. I worked my [butt] off, and I'm breaking with the Chicago Cubs. It's pretty amazing."
Barney won two College World Series while at Oregon State and the 2008 Florida State League title with the Daytona Cubs. He said he believes "winning is habitual."
When I mentioned to Quade that Barney has won "everywhere," the manager laughed. This is the majors, after all; pitchers don't walk a guy who raked in Omaha.
"He's won everywhere?! Well, keep on winning, brother, that's all I can tell you," Quade said, before turning serious. "No, he has. And a friend of mine from the Great Northwest makes that point with me regularly. He's a big fan of his.
"Winning players find a way to contribute every day. Maybe they go 0-for-4, but they make the play you want, maybe they get a key bunt down, maybe they steal a base, whatever it is; that's what I see and what I've seen in this kid from the back end of last year and all spring. We want to see him continue it. It's still a heck of a challenge, and we're talking about a complete major league season, not six weeks at the end of last season and six weeks here in beautiful Arizona."
Like Barney, Morel is young, only 23, and he got his feet wet at the end of last season. He is considered a plus defender at third base. While Quade wouldn't hand the starting job officially to Barney, with DeWitt and Jeff Baker in the mix, Ozzie Guillen said Morel has to play every day.
"No doubt if this kid makes the ballclub, he's got to play every day," Guillen said. "That's the way it's going to be. I think we're going to have a better ballclub that way."
And don't compare him to Brian Anderson, who also took the lone open spot as a rookie on a veteran team.
"I expect a lot more from Morel, a lot more," Guillen said. "I think Morel is a way better player than Brian. With all my respect, Morel can do a lot of stuff.
"I think Morel since he got here, he impressed a lot of people. It's another thing; he's a kid. We have to be patient with him. We have to make sure we protect him. But that's a different type of animal."
Both Barney and Morel can claim to not feel the pressure of being a rookie starter (or regular, in Barney's case) in a veteran lineup in a city that lacks patience with prospects. Omar Vizquel said they shouldn't fret too much, as a veteran team should ease the transition. Well, as long as they're not terrible, anyway.
"The other guys are going to take you under their wing and they're going to talk to you," Vizquel said. "You shouldn't have any pressure going in a situation like that. Obviously, there's pressure because it's the first year for you and you want to impress people, but it should be the other way around. The other guys are going to pick up and carry you most of the time. If you make a mistake, they're going to say don't worry about it."
Vizquel said he doesn't see any prospective problems with Morel, mostly because he's so adept in the field. The White Sox have a loose clubhouse, starting at the top, and the plain-speaking Morel said he hasn't been hazed yet, even by A.J. Pierzynski. He has a pretty reasoned perspective on his job.
"With the pieces we have on this team, I won't be asked to do a lot offensively," Morel said. "Just kind of play some good D, help out the pitching staff and do what I can offensively."
It's not that difficult in theory, is it? Just do your job, and it will work out fine. But it's a long season, and memories of Anderson and Ronny Cedeno linger. For now, everyone has a clean slate, and Barney's and Morel's futures are up to them.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.