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Darwin Barney is why you should keep watching the Cubs

Cubs manager Mike Quade says DarwBarney (above) may be less an overachiever more ''just damn good.''  |  Tom

Cubs manager Mike Quade says Darwin Barney (above) may be less of an overachiever and more ''just damn good.'' | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 29, 2011 12:28AM

The Cubs’ best player so far this year is also what the rest of the ­season figures to be all about.

He’s one of the best reasons to keep paying attention, the leading example of why there might be hope for this rebuild/patchwork process by next year. And two months into a season already circling the National League drain, he’s the Cubs’ best early bet for any kind of postseason recognition.

And Darwin Barney’s not even on the All-Star ballot.

Darwin Barney?

That’s how far the shortstop-turned-second baseman — the utility prospect-turned-key starter — has come in the last three months, not to mention how far this season has veered from modest expectations.

But as the Cubs open their toughest stretch of the season tonight in St. Louis, with temptation growing daily to wrap Albert Pujols in a $300 million bear hug, save the hugs for guys such as the rookie Barney.

He’s this team’s future, with the Cubs expected to keep building from within even as tens of millions of dollars fall off the payroll books each of the next two years.

That could be a good thing if Barney keeps developing at this pace. He’s already showing leadership skills and is a stabilizing influence in the middle of the Cubs’ diamond, paired with sophomore hitting star Starlin Castro.

‘‘The so-called youth moment, we don’t look at it like, ‘Let’s get experience for these guys for next year,’ ’’ Barney said as the Cubs prepared for a three-city trip with veterans filling the disabled list and minor-league callups such as Tony Campana, Brad Snyder, DJ LeMahieu and Scott Maine dotting the active roster. ‘‘They’re here to contribute. That’s the way we look at it.’’

Even if they might start feeling more like Mitt Romney’s dog on a road trip by the time this one ends.

‘‘The kids that have showed up will be baptized into the National League Central, if nothing else — let alone Philadelphia,’’ Cubs manager Mike Quade said. ‘‘They’re getting a taste, and they’re finding out the rigors here.’’

Might as well start force-feeding a bigger taste now — a process that could accelerate over the next six to eight weeks as the Cubs face options for shedding chunks of veteran salary before the trading deadline.

Meanwhile, Barney has become — like Castro, Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner a year ago — the newest symbol for the Cubs’ future and hopes.

‘‘We’ll take 25 of him,’’ said bench coach Pat Listach, a former Rookie of the Year shortstop who works with Barney one-on-one daily and who agrees the Cubs’ best all-around player is the former fourth-round draft pick from back-to-back Oregon State championship teams.

‘‘No doubt,’’ Listach says. ‘‘He does the little things right. He’s a winning baseball player.’’

Barney, who’s hitting .303 and is second on the team in RBI (25) and runs (28) from the No. 2 spot, is still learning, still new to second base and, consequently, still making mistakes of technique and positioning.

But he also soaks up coaching, even urging Listach and infield coach Ivan DeJesus to stay on him over the smallest mistakes.

Along the way, he has earned Web Gem status on national highlight shows. He has run the bases as well as anybody on the team. He has been a vocal and heads-up communicator in the field. He’s even been the best clutch hitter among the regulars, even if potential game-winners like his two-out double in the eighth inning Tuesday against the Houston Astros occasionally are lost in ugliness, such as the Astros’ six-run ninth inning that followed.

‘‘I keep talking about him as an overachiever,’’ Quade said. ‘‘Maybe I just misevaluated him. Maybe he’s not an overachiever. Maybe he’s just damn good.’’

Maybe even an All-Star — though it’ll take a write-in campaign by the fans or the players since Blake
DeWitt is on the ballot as the Cubs’ second baseman.

‘‘The odds of me making that team are slim to none, even if I was on the ballot,’’ said Barney, who has yet to be recognized by his own team with a concourse banner at Wrigley Field. ‘‘So that’s the last thing I worry about.’’

He insists he concentrates only on playing for the situation and for wins, but he admits an All-Star nod ‘‘would be cool.’’

‘‘But I haven’t really thought about it, to be honest,’’ Barney said. ‘‘I’m thinking about the here and now.’’

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