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Darwin Barney in position of strength

DarwBarney who lost about 15 pounds over course seas2011 has put some weight appears stronger quicker spring training.  |

Darwin Barney, who lost about 15 pounds over the course of the season in 2011, has put on some weight and appears stronger and quicker in spring training. | Joe Robbins~Getty Images

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Updated: April 3, 2012 8:23AM

MESA, Ariz. — Cubs second baseman Darwin Barney put on just enough weight in the off-season that you can see it in the expanded biceps. And he seems to have made an even stronger impression on his new manager, who has Barney penciled in as his every-day guy at the position.

“I’m a little bit overwhelmed after having watched him [from] the other side,’’ said manager Dale Sveum, who watched the Cubs last year from afar as the Milwaukee Brewers’ hitting coach. “He’s a lot stronger and a lot quicker than I thought.’’

Barney, who was the rookie of the month in April last year, says he learned after wearing down some during the longest baseball season of his career. He hit .306 before the All-Star break and .238 after, losing about 15 pounds over the course of the season.

Even in spring training, he lost eight pounds after coming in at 185. This year he weighs 190.

“His first step’s really good,’’ said Sveum, a former middle infielder. “He’s still learning second base. There’s some things I’ve talked to him about that I think will help him out around the bag and free him up. The ball’s coming off his bat really well. I’ve been really impressed.’’

Barney says he’s getting a lot out of Sveum’s tutoring. And he likes hearing the praise. But he’s not getting caught up in that.

“It’s always nice, and first impressions are important,’’ he said. “But I look around, and I’m seeing it from everybody. We’re excited. We’re excited about this year.’’

Great expectations

Could first-year starter Bryan LaHair fill the National League Central slugger shoes that Prince Fielder left behind by going to Detroit from Milwaukee via free agency?

The popular FanGraphs website seems to think so. Among “10 Bold Predictions’’ by Howard Bender, LaHair is predicted to hit at least 30 homers to lead the Cubs, Fielder fewer than 30 for the Tigers.

“It’s not a bad number,’’ LaHair said. “That’s the first time I’ve had somebody believe that. … But the headline was ‘Bold Predictions,’ right? I just try to go out and be myself.’’

Face time

Since the team shifted its marketing focus off Starlin Castro in the wake of sexual-assault allegations against the All-Star shortstop, Sveum has found himself the uneasy focus of 2012 marketing, which includes his face on Chicago-area billboards.

“You appreciate it or whatever, but it’s not something where I’ve ever had my picture on a billboard,’’ he said. “I’m not exactly the most fashionable guy or somebody that’s going to smile and take pictures very well all the time. I heard it’s OK. But I’m not real comfortable with it, put it that way.’’

Bunt man cometh

Maybe it’s an especially good thing that Jeff Samardzija is bunting well enough in camp to advance Thursday into the Sweet 16 of the Cubs’ bunt tourney, considering he could ask to actually do it this year if he makes the starting rotation.

“Well, that’s going to be the million-dollar question in spring training,’’ Sveum said. “Against live hitters [Thursday], he threw the heck out of the ball and had great command, which he’s had every time. So it’s going to be an interesting decision later this month.’’

So how stoked is he getting over this bunt stuff after assuring a Sweet 16 matchup against Randy Wells?

“It’s just a bunting tournament, man,’’ he said. “But I’ve got Wells next, so I think we can look past that round, actually.’’

Joe Mather and Castro also advanced.

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