Commentary

The evolution of Darwin and Starlin

New double-play combination gives crumbling Cubs strength up the middle

Updated: June 15, 2011, 12:31 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

The best double-play partners anticipate each other's moves and generally behave as if they're joined at the hip. Or in this case, the flip.

Omar Vizquel and Roberto Alomar needed a warehouse for all their Web Gems in three seasons with Cleveland. And there's no better example of shortstop-second base synergy than Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, who were known as "Trammaker" through two decades together in Detroit.

The Cubs have some slick infield history of their own, starting with Tinker to Evers to Chance in the early 1900s. Ernie Banks won two MVP awards and made seven All-Star teams as a shortstop, and Ryne Sandberg beefed up his résumé with nine Gold Gloves at second base. Between those two Hall of Fame careers, Don Kessinger and Glenn Beckert were a proficient, underrated tandem at Wrigley Field in the 1960s and '70s.

It remains to be seen whether Starlin Castro and Darwin Barney, Chicago's new double-play partnership, can perpetuate that legacy. But they've done some early bonding that bodes well for the long term.

As a young player you need to work together with somebody -- especially up the middle. I think we've both been blessed working with each other.

-- Darwin Barney on Starlin Castro

Two or three years ago, the two young infielders were taking grounders in spring training when Castro kicked some routine balls on a back field in Arizona. Barney, the shortstop on two College World Series champions at Oregon State, could tell by Castro's body language that the kid was flustered.

"Those fields are real choppy, and he looked at me like, 'I don't know what's going on,"' Barney recalled. "At that point in our careers, we were competing a little bit. We were both shortstops coming up, and the Cubs didn't know what they were going to do yet.

"After we were done, we walked off the field and I pulled him aside and said, 'We're going to figure this out, because I want to win a championship someday. I don't care if I'm playing behind you or next to you. I want to win.' And he said, 'That's the same thing I want.' From that point on, we've had our eyes on the same prize."'

Unless you're partial to Carlos Zambrano rants, haphazard defense or Albert Pujols free-agent speculation, the 2011 Cubs are certainly no prize. They have the second-worst record in the majors at 26-39. Peter Gammons just called Wrigley Field a "dump," and new owner Tom Ricketts has some big decisions to make on the future of GM Jim Hendry and the long-term direction of the franchise.

Even snippets of good news are invariably accompanied by bad news. On Monday night, Barney helped beat the Milwaukee Brewers 1-0 with a mad dash home on an infield groundout. Tuesday night, Castro had three hits and produced the game-winning single in the 10th inning of a 5-4 Cubs victory. But the Cubs' sudden surge of optimism was tempered Wednesday by news that Barney is going on the 15-day disabled list with a strained knee. The injury isn't considered serious, but Barney is the latest in a slew of Chicago players to go on the DL this season.

Short-term setbacks notwithstanding, the long-term view up the middle remains promising for the Cubs. Castro and Barney don't hit for power and they need to increase their walk totals and reduce the rookie mistakes, but they're establishing themselves as contact hitters with range, energy and a drive to improve.

And that hybrid nickname -- "Starwin Barstro" -- makes you think there's some harmonic convergence at play here.

Castro, 21, and Barney, 25, have combined for 158 hits, easily the most by a double-play duo this season. They have 11 of the Cubs' meager 19 stolen bases, and they've struck out only 57 times (while walking 18 times) in 553 plate appearances.

They personify the concept of Major League Baseball-as-melting pot. Castro, the organizational golden child, signed out of the Dominican Republic at age 16. Barney, an Oregon native of Korean and Japanese descent, is the resident "grit guy" who refuses to go away. Just ask Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker, who were supposed to be splitting time at second base in Chicago this season until Barney displaced them.

"He brings as good an attitude as anybody in here," Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster said. "He gets great at-bats, he hustles really hard, he's always really well-prepared and he's not afraid to ask questions to try to better himself. It shows in his play."

What's in a name?

Now that Roger Clemens has retired, Barney leads the majors in family alliteration. His father is David, his mother is Deedee and his siblings are Doug, Davey, Deanna and Darilyn. For those who might be curious, the name Darwin is not a reference to a certain English naturalist who wrote "On the Origin of Species."

"My dad had an Uncle Darwon," Barney said. "He liked the name, but he didn't like it spelled with an 'o' because he thought it looked funny. It has nothing to do with Charles Darwin and evolution."

[+] EnlargeDarwin Barney
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesWith Darwin Barney at second and Starlin Castro, background, at short, the Cubs are in good hands up the middle.

Barney's father and brother Davey are both dentists, and he majored in pre-dentistry until his third trimester at OSU, when he discovered that a course load laden with calculus, organic chemistry and molecular biology was too demanding for him to play baseball to his maximum ability. So he switched to liberal studies and served as a driving force on two NCAA title teams.

Oregon State coach Pat Casey raved about his Barney's "charisma" and "fearless" approach to the game, and Barney has transferred that take-charge attitude to his new position at second base. He helps position teammates defensively, relays instructions from the dugout and continues to do the little "field general" things to help take the load off Castro at short.

"I've used the word 'overachiever,"' Cubs manager Mike Quade said of Barney. "He's like the underdog's guy. But you know what? Maybe I'm dead wrong. Maybe he's not an overachiever. Maybe he's just good.

"Is he an above-average runner? No. Does he have an above-average arm? No. Does he hit the ball onto Sheffield Avenue? No. But he's just a good baseball player. Pete Rose was a guy who had that [overachiever] tag, and he was a pretty damned good player."

Barney helped beat Milwaukee 1-0 on Monday with an aggressive, artful head-first slide into home plate. But he made an equally eloquent statement during a blowout loss at Wrigley Field earlier this season. With the Cubs so far behind the "mercy rule" was about to kick in, he went full-bore after a pop fly and tumbled into the right-field bullpen in a failed attempt at a catch.

"After the game somebody said, 'That's incredible. I can't believe the guy would risk life and limb in that situation,"' Quade said. "And I said, 'That's the only way he knows how to go about it.' When I see people like him, I always want to compliment the people that raised them."

A Star is born

Barney isn't alone in his blue-collar work ethic. Castro grew up in the coastal town of Monte Cristi and would probably be working as a fisherman if baseball hadn't carried him from his homeland to the United States.

The name "Starlin" is a tribute to fellow Dominican native Stan Javier, a former big league outfielder and personal favorite of Diogenes Castro, Starlin's father. Javier, who now works for the players' association, said it's not uncommon for Dominican families to name their children after him, but that families routinely either misspell the name or go with a variation.

As a budding shortstop, Starlin Castro was partial to Miguel Tejada, whose chattiness and nonstop energy resonated with him from the start.

"He's kind of a crazy guy," Castro said. "He has fun all the time. You see him smile, and you can tell how much he loves baseball. I love watching him play."

The Cubs signed Castro to a $45,000 bonus five years ago, and quickly discovered that they'd unearthed a bargain. Baseball America named Castro the organization's top prospect in 2010, and he joined the Cubs last May without spending a moment in Triple-A ball. Castro hit a three-run homer off Cincinnati's Homer Bailey in his first big league at-bat, then made three errors in his Wrigley Field debut three days later.

Each day as a Cub is a new adventure for Castro, who continues to make strides on and off the field. He has worked hard to improve his English by conversing with teammates and watching movies -- mostly comedies. He uses third-base coach Ivan DeJesus as an interpreter in big media scrums, but holds his own quite nicely speaking English in one-on-one interviews.

Despite his youth, Castro understands that he has lots of room to grow. He's aware that he should refrain from throwing the ball when it's clear he has no chance to beat the baserunner, but his bravado still gets the best of him at times. Castro is also progressing in his efforts to runs deeper counts. But it's hard to be selective when you have a Vladimir Guerrero-like ability to reach pitches out of the zone and put them in play.

"The guys out on the mound are going to make him adjust, because without better discipline he's going to go through long stretches where he struggles," Quade said. "They're going to continue to expand the zone and get him out on pitches he shouldn't be swinging at."

Scouts think Castro has a chance to fill out physically and hit 15-20 homers while contending for a batting title one day. Barney's future is a tougher long-term sell. Since he's not blessed with power or speed and has never walked much, he'll have to crank out hits with Freddy Sanchez-like proficiency to be an effective regular in the big leagues. Time will tell if Barney is an every-day second baseman or a 350-400 at-bat utility man. But Sanchez, Ryan Theriot, David Eckstein, Jamey Carroll and a slew of others have carved out productive careers with similar skill sets.

Castro and Barney both have on-base percentages in the .320-.330 range this season. That needs to improve. But their work around the second-base bag is evolving by the day. It's downright Darwinian.

"Cazzy doesn't have that ego where he says, 'I'm the shortstop. I'm going to do things a certain way,"' Barney said. "This is the big leagues. It's the toughest game in the world, and you're at the highest level. As a young player you need to work together with somebody -- especially up the middle. I think we've both been blessed working with each other."

Barney and Castro have a way to go, but they're at least fun to watch. On this 2011 Cubs roster, that's saying something.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer