Not all that long ago, it looked like Brandon Barnes would never play in a Major League Baseball game.
After being drafted in the sixth round of the 2005 MLB draft (the same year Troy Tulowitzki was drafted), Barnes was still mired in Houston's farm system seven years later and had only just reached Triple-A. On several occasions, he played just well enough to make it to the next level and avoid being a casualty of roster crunches. Even so, his career minor league OPS was still under .800, and at his age, the clock was ticking for him to ever get that major league call.
His darkest moment came in the summer of 2011 when he nearly quit the game. On a road trip with the Oklahoma City RedHawks, Barnes couldn't sleep, and like many restless nights that season, he began to wonder if he was wasting his life in the minor leagues and only prolonging the inevitable waiting for a call to the majors that was never going to come. At 4 a.m., he made a cross-country call to his pastor Greg Tucker and told him that he was going to quit baseball. The climb to reach the major just seemed too steep. Barnes had been on this journey too long, and he was overwhelmed. At the end of his rope, Barnes didn't think he had a future in baseball.
Tucker didn't see it the same way. He had watched Barnes grow from a High School student who was forced to spend time with him after being assigned community service hours following some bad choices into a responsible man, a loving husband, and a Triple-A baseball player. He simply wasn't going to let Barnes throw it all away now.
"Brandon, don't you dare give up. Don't you dare give up on this gift" he insisted.
Tucker reminded Barnes how many players would be willing to trade places with him right at that moment for a shot at AAA, and that he was only being tested to make him stronger in the future.
Barnes took the conversation to heart, stuck with it, and made a final push at his dream. That off season, he went to the Australian League to play in more games and refine his approach at the plate.
He specifically worked on the mental aspect of his game. He developed a plan for each at bat and each pitch. He stuck to his guns, and made a last ditch attempt to get every last ounce of production out of his athletic ability. After several months of hard work, he began to see things pay off.
Barnes returned to the field in 2012 as a different player. For the first time in his career, his body and mind were working as one when he stepped into the batter's box, and it showed almost immediately. Playing for the AA Corpus Christi Hooks, Barnes stunned opposing pitchers and hit for a .944 OPS, which included 20 doubles in just 44 games.
He quickly earned a call back to AAA Oklahoma City where he continued his new found success with the bat. Just one year after posting a .197 / .294 / .402 line (.696 OPS) for the RedHawks in 263 plate appearances in 2011, Barnes returned as a completely different player. Other than once again racking up exactly 263 plate appearances, everything about his 2012 AAA numbers were different. He proved consistent night in and night out, and by the time he took his last at bat he had a .323 / .383 / .477 line (.860 OPS).
Barnes was particularly tough against left handed pitching with his new approach. For the 2012 season in AA and AAA combined, he hit for an impressive 1.002 OPS
After what seemed like just another game to Barnes in August that season, Oklahoma City manager Tony DeFrancesco called the outfielder into his office. It was there that he told Barnes he was going to the major leagues for the first time; more than seven years after being drafted.
Overcome with emotion, Barnes cried tears of joy. All the work, all the time, all the faith and help from those close to him had finally paid off. Just one year after nearly giving it all up, Brandon Barnes was a major league player.
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Nearly two years later, the big league career of Brandon Barnes is not only a survival story, but it's now bordering on becoming a success story. For starters, he's already proved he's better with the glove than most at a position in the center of the diamond. Here's a few examples of his defense.
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It goes beyond his instincts in the field however. While Barnes is certainly still a below average bat overall, he's also carried his success against lefties over from his impressive 2012 minor league numbers.
In his first 200 major league plate appearances against left handed pitching, Barnes has hit for a solid .280 / .335 / .401 (.736 OPS). He's still pretty dreadful against righties, but since Barnes changed his mental approach, we have two years of data that suggest he's got a pretty strong platoon split.
Nobody is ever going to mistake Barnes for a star - There's still too many holes in his game. However, a guy with good speed, great defense, and an ability to hit lefties at a decent clip can be a solid major league contributor on a winning ball club. Barnes is not the guy you want as one of your top 15 or even 20 best players, but he's absolutely the guy you want filling out one of the bottom few spot on your 25 man roster.
It's understandable that Rockies fans passed him off as excess fluff in the Dexter Fowler trade and then almost completely forget he existed through most of the winter. He doesn't look like much on a stat sheet. But this is a player who will look better on the field than in a table of numbers.
During the off season, I watched several Astros games from last season, and the more I saw, the more I appreciated the contributions of Brandon Barnes. It doesn't happen right away, but the more you see him, the more he grows on you. Barnes is not well known right now, but by season's end, he might just be a fan favorite in Denver.