CHICAGO -- Over the past few weeks, Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade has answered daily questions about why some of the younger players aren’t in the starting lineup.
The latest youngster to be watching from the dugout is infielder DJ LeMahieu. Called up on Sept. 6 for his second tour of duty with the Cubs, LeMahieu has had only eight plate appearances during this stint and has almost solely been relegated to pinch-running duties.
"He’s in a tough spot,” Quade said. “(Darwin) Barney’s played really well and obviously (Aramis Ramirez) is a big part of this offense. It’s just a little tougher situation than Bryan [LaHair] or for Colvy [Tyler Colvin] or those guys. It’s even a little tougher than with Campy [Tony Campana] right now, because he’s so valuable late in the game. He’s done a good job of what he’s been asked to do, and he understands the situation.”
LeMahieu has been mentioned as a possible replacement for Ramirez, who has a $16 million option for next season. Even if the Cubs decide pick up the option, Ramirez may decline it, as he’s made it clear that he would like some security with a multi-year deal.
With a line of .319/.354/.423 (batting average/on-base/slugging) at two levels in the minors this season, LeMahieu has shown he can put the ball in play. However, his lack of power makes it doubtful that he could give the Cubs what they need on offense from a typically run-producing position like third base.
But an interesting case could be made that LeMahieu may be a better option in the future at second base than Barney. After hitting .333 in his first 26 games this season, Barney quickly became a crowd favorite. His strong base-running skills and constant all-out hustle only endeared him further to his manager and the fan base.
But since that hot start, Barney has slowed down considerably (.261/.298/.325 since May 2). With his slight frame, it’s unlikely that he’ll develop any more power down the road, even with a strengthening program in the offseason.
Barney has performed admirably this season and when it comes to a player’s makeup, there are few who can top Barney. While many scouts believe he has a long future in the big leagues, most tend to agree that it’s in a utility role.
“The upside for Lemahieu is quite a bit higher than Barney,” said one NL scout. “I think the chances of the power showing up on him are good enough that you do give him the chance to beat Barney out when Lemahieu is deemed ready.”
At 23, LeMahieu is two and half years younger than Barney, and it’s possible that he could develop the power he lacks as he continues to fill out his 6-foot-4 frame. While he has yet to display game power (he does show some pop in batting practice), scouts often say that power is the last tool to show up for young players.
Neither LeMahieu nor Barney is a high-walk guy, thus developing some power is something that could help LeMahieu separate himself from Barney.
“Power is something that you can’t (force), you can’t try to hit homers otherwise you’re going to get worse,” LeMahieu said. “Just with strength and experience I think it will come. What all the older guys have always preached to me is to not try to do too much, just keep hitting the ball the other way and the power will come. And it already has a little bit this year.”
LeMahieu’s slugging percentage has ticked up over his past few seasons in the minors. After slugging .384 and .386 in 2009 and 2010 respectively, that number jumped to .423 in 2011. He may never develop the power of a slugging corner infielder, but it’s possible he’ll develop enough to be an intriguing option to replace Barney.
LeMahieu is known to be rather athletic and his defense has improved significantly at second over the years. It’s that defense that LeMahieu really prides himself in. Although he’s comfortable at both third and second, it’s obvious that he has the most value at second base.
The Cubs are clearly in a situation that requires them to evaluate every option at every position. The only spots that are etched in stone for 2012 are shortstop with Starlin Castro and Matt Garza in the rotation.
Trying to figure out if LeMahieu can fill a hole as the everyday second baseman probably should have started in September rather than next spring.