WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- The general populace was counting out Josh Barfield's favorite NBA team, the Houston Rockets, when Yao Ming's season ended with a fractured foot. The thinking was that the Rockets were done without their star center. All they've done since Ming's injury is go 6-0, extending their winning streak to 18 games. So to those who took the gloom and doom declarations as gospel, Barfield has a piece of advice.
"You should have asked me," he said with a big smile. "I knew we weren't done." Barfield can relate to his beloved basketball team. He knows what it's like to be counted out prematurely. No one, after all, is really projecting the 25-year-old Barfield to be on the Indians' Opening Day roster, by virtue of his disappointing 2007 season, his two Minor League options remaining and Asdrubal Cabrera's emergence at second base. But while a ticket to Triple-A Buffalo is Barfield's most likely fate when Spring Training camp breaks, he's stubborn in his belief in himself. "I'm not a Triple-A player," he said. "I don't look at myself like that. That's not even something I'm thinking about now. I'm here to make the team and contribute." Of course, some Triple-A players have non-Triple-A credentials. And because the Indians will probably want him to get everyday at-bats and second base is the sole position he plays, Barfield is expected to join that list. But in these early days of spring play and in the batting cages at Progressive Field this past offseason, Barfield has given the Indians reason to keep believing in him. "We've worked on his zone awareness," hitting coach Derek Shelton said. "We want to see which balls he hits well and go over all his at-bats. He's done a great job with it." That job began when Barfield spent a week working with Shelton in Cleveland over the winter and has continued in camp. In his first 24 Grapefruit League plate appearances, Barfield has four walks. Not bad, considering he had just 14 walks in 444 plate appearances last season. Of course, Barfield, who has also struck out seven times, knows spring numbers can be deceiving. But he still thinks that walk total is substantive.
"I've already got like one-fifth as many walks as I had all year last year," Barfield said. "Batting average can be deceiving in Spring Training, because you're always working on stuff. But for me, the pitches I'm seeing and drawing walks, I think that's directly related to the stuff I've been working on." Based on his '07 numbers, Barfield has a lot to work on. His on-base percentage was a woeful .270, and he hit just .243. He did come up with some clutch hits, as reflected in his 50 RBIs. Still, when Cabrera burst onto the scene in August and secured the second-base starting job, Barfield could offer little rebuttal. Barfield could have followed the path of so many before him and pouted. Rather, he handled his demotion like a true professional. "It's just who I am," Barfield said. "Good or bad, you've got to be a man. A man is the same always. Nobody enjoys going through that, but, at the same time, you've got to handle it the right way. In the long run, people respect you a lot more when you do that." So what happened to Barfield last season? How did a kid with so much promise, coming off an impressive rookie season with San Diego in 2006, find himself planted on the bench? The Indians have offered their thoughts on the situation. The change in leagues, from what was a rather weak National League West to the superior pitching of the American League Central, and the general adjustments that must be made in a sophomore season were cited as reasons for Barfield's decline. Barfield has a simpler idea. "When you get out of whack mechanically, things kind of snowball," he said. "It wasn't like one league was that much tougher than the other league or anything like that. When I'm doing things right, I'll have success. And if you're not doing things right, you're not going to have success." Back home in Houston over the offseason, Barfield and his father, Jesse, a veteran of 12 big league seasons and a former AL home run king, watched video from '07 to get a read on those out-of-whack mechanics. While Barfield has 20/15 vision, he found that he wasn't putting himself in a good position to read the ball coming out of the pitcher's hand. "It's about focusing on picking it up earlier," Barfield said. "We've been doing a lot of work on the mental approach, getting up there and having good at-bats. I think I've improved at that." When Barfield was getting ready to come to camp, his father told him, "You're ready." "He said, 'We got a lot of stuff cleaned up this offseason,'" Barfield remembered. "Now it's just about keeping everything straight." Shortly after discussing his progress Sunday, Barfield took the field against the Nationals and ripped a solo home run off Matt Chico. It was another spring achievement that might not land Barfield a job in the big leagues, but it was, at the least, a sign that he's on the right path. And Barfield knows as well as anyone that situations can change as a season evolves. If the Indians need his services this year, he plans to be ready. "To me, that's how I look at life, not just baseball," he said. "You've got to prepare for the opportunity that you want."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.