With each and every passing day, the answer seems more and more likely that it will be "yes".
The 25-year-old was selected by the Cardinals in last December's draft by an organization that knew their roster was short of right-handed hitting outfielders and limited in terms of top-of the-lineup hitter skills in-house. Barton fits the profile of both.
Early returns positive
So far this spring, Barton has posted an impressive batting line of .341/.400/.659 (BA/OBP/SLG), appearing frequently in the important number two spot in Manager Tony La Russa's batting order. Against Baltimore's Adam Loewen in Wednesday's first inning, for example, the right-handed hitter executed like clockwork.
Barton worked a walk and batting behind him, Albert Pujols put the Cardinals on top with a two-run home run. The next time up, Barton expertly sacrificed the leadoff hitter into scoring position, who would later come home to score. In the fifth, Barton collected an RBI via a sacrifice fly. Barton has also been given a trial in the leadoff spot, where he played on Thursday.
La Russa, the one person who must be most favorably impressed for Barton to beat the odds and make the team, seems to be just that. Speaking about the outfielder's offense, the skipper said this: "He uses the whole field when he hits. He gets the barrel on the ball. He shows good speed."
Defense is the question
The primary weakness in Barton's game is his defense. On Thursday, he committed a fielding error but also made a game-saving run and catch against the wall in extra innings.
Yet Barton's arm is most often cited as being his most limiting factor. When I suggested defense might force Barton into playing a corner spot, specifically left field, La Russa disagreed. "He can play all three spots. He just doesn't throw as well as some other guys."
On the other hand, there are more important considerations defensively. La Russa feels more strongly about reaction and accuracy than a guy having a cannon of an arm. "The most important thing for an outfielder is to get rid of it fast and get it to the cutoff man," the manager explained.
I asked Barton his view of his throwing. Not having heard La Russa's comments to me, he illustrated his manager's point.
"I have a strong arm. It is just erratic at times. My release point isn't consistent so sometimes my throw to the cutoff man will be too low and other times it is too high. Sometimes I get too excited," he admitted. I suggested only half-jokingly that Barton spend some time with pitching master Dave Duncan to refine his release.
Knee problems in the past?
There was a scare early in camp when Barton was sent by the team to a specialist to get his knee checked out. Some believe that concern about that post-season surgery is the only reason Barton fell to the Cardinals with the number ten pick in the Rule 5 Draft.
Barton quickly and emphatically brushed away any lingering issues with the knee.
"I was confident about my knee the day after I came out of surgery, because I knew it would be getting better. In fact, when I had the doctor's appointment (this month), I didn't expect them to find anything wrong because it wasn't bothering me. There was a little swelling, but to me it was a non-issue. But it was something the team thought should be looked at," Barton explained.
Coming off the bench
In his professional career, Barton has been a starter, which he has also done frequently this spring. Yet, his role once the season begins could be that of a reserve, coming off the bench with an expectation of instant results. While Barton admitted that is a change, he is ready to make the mental adjustments.
"It's new to me. But right now, I am willing to accept any role… It is important for me to relax, not to tense up on the bench and not take that approach onto the field. I feel that is important, that as long as you feel relaxed and you have positive thoughts coming into the game, then you will be successful in the game."
Barton doesn't have the typical background of a ballplayer. Yet his manager can surely relate. La Russa holds an undergraduate degree in industrial management as well as a law degree and upon passing the bar exam, he became only one of five lawyer-managers in the history of Major League Baseball.
Barton was an aerospace engineering major at the University of Miami and has just one more semester remaining to complete his degree. In the past, he interned at Boeing Corporation in their satellite systems department in El Segundo, CA.
While some organizations reportedly passed on Barton in the 2004 draft because it was assumed he would continue his schooling instead of play professional ball, apparently none of them asked the player himself. If they had, they would have received a very definitive reply.
"To tell you the truth, baseball was always first. When I transferred into Miami (from Loyola Marymount), I did it to play baseball. I did it to improve my stock and to be at a powerhouse. It was a bonus to study aeronautical engineering.
"I know you have a small window of opportunity to get to where you've got to get and I know if baseball would end today, ten years from now, 15 years from now, the University will always be there and I can go back," he explained.
Yet, Barton also made it crystal clear that he is going to complete his degree and practice his engineering career when his playing days are over. He expects it of himself as do others in his life.
"With that said, it didn't mean that when I was in class that I would slack off or I didn't try to give all I had to give because I know that is important not only for me, but also for my family and those who look up to me - to see a student-athlete excel at school as well.
"It is something I truly have a passion for. It is not something I did just to have something to do while going to school. If I don't feel like it is going to help me progress in life or is part of my growth, then I am not going to do it. With the degree I have chosen, it is a part of my life that will help fulfill me down the road. It is something that I want to do and I feel it is important to pursue that."
I asked the native of Los Angeles if he ever gets grief from baseball-playing peers about his line of study. Barton prefers to let his results on the field do his talking.
"They joke about it here and there, but at the same time, they have to respect my baseball game as well," he explained with a smile.
It turns out that Barton has other gearhead company in the Cardinals organization. Among the prominent lines on Senior Quantitative Analyst Sig Mejdal's resume is a stint with none other than NASA. The number-cruncher and the ballplayer haven't actually met yet, but when they do, they'll have a lot in common.
Originally a mechanical engineer, Mejdal obtained advanced degrees in Human Factors and Industrial Engineering, He has worked on software products, web sites, information appliances and telemetry displays for Air Force, along with NASA and others.
With the Cardinals, one of Mejdal's most important jobs is to mine and distill information to help identify future Cardinals ballplayers like Barton. When I suggested that Mejdal might be able to assist Barton with contacts at NASA later on, the outfielder didn't sell himself short.
"I have a couple of friends who work for NASA, as well," he grinned. Should have known…
It isn't going to matter anytime soon. The fact is, Barton's only job in the public sector for the foreseeable future looks to be as a professional baseball player for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Even La Russa, unwilling to make a commitment yet, at least publicly, couldn't ignore the obvious when he said this about Barton, "For a Rule 5 guy, it is tough to have a better spring than he's having."
Barton can see it coming, even if he knows it isn't done yet.
"As it gets closer and closer to the season, it gets more real. I get more excited. It is one of those kinds of things where I have been working my whole life to try to get to this point and am actually starting to see light at the end of the tunnel.
"For me, it is kind of surreal. I am just looking forward to the day when I get the nod to show I can do it at the big league level. Hopefully I can make the team and help the team win," he said humbly.
What Barton wants more than anything is to remove that "Rule 5" tag and just become one of the 25 "St. Louis Cardinals". Rocket science can wait, but he'll be back.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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