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Darwin Barney, Starlin Castro are NL’s best keystone combo

Chicago Cubs v AtlantBraves

Chicago Cubs v Atlanta Braves

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Updated: August 7, 2012 6:39AM



ATLANTA — Starlin Castro approached Darwin Barney when spring training started in February with one goal in mind.

‘‘I want to be the best two up the middle in the league,’’ the All-Star shortstop told his second baseman, ‘‘be the best two guys on the double play, the best two guys on the relay, everything.’’

Said Castro this week: ‘‘He was thinking the same.’’

Believe it or not, halfway through the season, the Cubs’ young middle infielders have done it. And if they keep up the trend, the significance of such dramatically upgraded play could have the same long-term impact as another big bat.

‘‘No doubt about it,’’ said third base/infield coach Pat Listach, a former Rookie of the Year shortstop. ‘‘Most teams that win are really strong up the middle.’’

The Cubs have a lot of other things to fix and upgrade before that happens, but they might have their defensive centerpiece in place now.

Whether by measure of still-evolving fielding analytics, by eye test or by the fact that manager Dale Sveum doesn’t feel he can afford to sit his shortstop for the defense he would lose, Castro and Barney look as good in the field these days as any other combination in the National League.

‘‘That defense is saving us a lot of runs,’’ Sveum said of Castro. ‘‘When you have a defense that — knock on wood — is playing as good as ours is right now, you don’t want to do anything like [resting Castro].’’

For whatever it’s worth, both guys are among the major-league leaders in ‘‘defensive runs saved above average’’ as defined by John Dewan’s Baseball Info Solutions. Castro is at plus-13 compared to minus-9, minus-6 and minus-4 for multiple Gold Glove winners Derek Jeter, Troy Tulowitzki and Jimmy Rollins, respectively.

Barney’s at a whopping plus-20 at second base, with the combined result putting both players in positive ‘‘wins above replacement’’ territory.

What exactly does that mean?

‘‘I have no clue,’’ Barney said.

But forget the stats. When Castro is making month-to-month improvements and Barney is getting ground-ball outs on back-to-back plays 90 feet apart — as he did Monday night — then you can see it with your own eyes.

And you’re not seeing better quality at the two positions combined in the NL anywhere else right now, especially not with Colorado’s Tulowitzki on the disabled list and Phillies second baseman Chase Utley playing only five games in the field.

‘‘That’s our goal. That’s what we want,’’ said Barney, who takes a 69-game errorless streak into the final series before the All-Star break. ‘‘We’ve worked a lot. We communicate a lot. We’re always talking. Castro’s the kind of guy who says things to me like, ‘‘Hey, man, when you make a mistake, I’m mad. When I make a mistake, you’re mad.’ We’re there for each other. I think that added communication has helped us.’’

The other obvious big change this year has been the detailed positioning charts the new coaching staff employs for every play. It might be the most conspicuous difference even the casual fan can see — putting infielders, especially, in what seems like the exact spot on balls in play a majority of the time.

One result is that the fielding chances in the middle of the diamond are up this year for both guys.

Another result?

‘‘If anything, it puts you in a defensive mind-set,’’ Barney said. ‘‘A lot of guys that make mistakes defensively, they may take an at-bat out there, and their mind’s not on it; they’re worried about an at-bat. But when you’re focused on your spray charts and you’re doing your homework for the defensive side of the game, it puts you in that mind-set where this is just as important as any other part of the game.’’

The next step could be Gold Gloves, for either or both at some point.

Yes, even Castro, despite all the talk of his high error totals the last two years and critics who said he needed to change positions. Even Jeter once made 56 errors in a minor-league season.

‘‘I know I can hit .300 every year,’’ Castro said. ‘‘I know I can steal bases. I know one day I can hit homers. And that’s the only thing [left to show], the only thing that I’m looking for: defense … and a Gold Glove.’’



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