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2010 Chicago Cubs Profile: Mike Fontenot

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IFebruary 24, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 23:  Mike Fontenot #17 of the Chicago Cubs throws from his stomach to get Juan Pierre of the Los Angeles Dodgers out at second in the sixth inning at Dodger Stadium on August 23, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. The Cubs defeated the Dodgers 3-1.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

It's hard to know what happened, exactly, but Mike Fontenot's career fell right out from under him in 2009.

Fontenot, who will turn 30 in June this year, entered last season as the Cubs' starter at second base. While many players and fans missed the affable Mark DeRosa's clubhouse presence, Fontenot's 2008 season provided ample evidence that DeRosa's on-field skill set was expendable. In 284 plate appearances, Fontenot batted .305/.395/.514. Those are star-caliber numbers, and while it was apparent to all that another such performance was unlikely, his future as a late-blooming left-handed hitter looked bright.

Handed the starting job on a full-time basis, however, Fontenot fell to pieces. In 419 plate appearances, he hit just .236/.301/.377. His walk rate declined; his strikeout rate rose. His batting average on balls in play fell from .353 to .276. He hit the ball on the ground more often, and in the air less. He went from hitting a substantially higher than league average rate of line drives to a substantially lower one.

He swung at more pitches, both in and out of the zone, and made contact less often on strikes. Seeing his impatience, pitchers threw him significantly fewer strikes than they had in 2008, and threw him fewer fastballs: only 57.8 percent of the pitches Fontenot saw in 2009 were heaters, down from 62.0 percent in the previous year. For a dead-red fastball hitter—of all players who have seen meaningful time at second base in the past two seasons, statistically, only Ben Zobrist, Chase Utley, Dan Uggla and Martin Prado better handle fastballs, according to FanGraphs—that spelled trouble.

Further undoing Fontenot in 2009 was the arrival in early July of Jeff Baker, a right-handed hitter but an equally versatile utility infielder. Baker's bullish second half put him in line to take over the primary starting duties at second base in 2010, and as of the beginning of Spring Training, that seems to be exactly Chicago's intention.

Fontenot deserves a true platoon there, however. He defends his position well: for his career, he is 10.4 runs better than average per 150 games, according to FanGraphs. Baker is solid with the glove, too, but not nearly Fontenot's equal: he is a much more modest 2.3 runs better than the average second baseman over his longer career.

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Moreover, the two are more than usually vulnerable to platoon switches. Baker's .889 career OPS against left-handed hurlers sparkles, especially when one considers Fontenot's .630 figure against southpaws. When facing starboarders, however, Baker's OPS drops to .727. Fontenot, meanwhile, bats a .783 against them, and if he can regain (or even approximate) his 2008 form of .911 against righties, manager Lou Piniella would suddenly have one of the league's best platoon arrangements in his arsenal.

In all likelihood, however, Baker will get the lion's share of playing time around the keystone sack in 2010. Fontenot simply doesn't seem to have the organization's trust, and it will be hard to earn it unless Baker forces the club's hand with an abysmal spring. Here are my projections:

  • 130 games
  • 368 plate appearances
  • .271/.348/.422 AVG/OBP/SLG
  • 10 home runs

For the $1 million for which Fontenot signed over the winter, avoiding arbitration in his first year of eligibility, that is a pretty good value for Chicago. It would not make for a good everyday starter and offensive contributor; Fontenot is not that kind of player. But it signifies more than adequate value added off the bench, and could be a part of a winning formula for the Cubs.

Watch for the rest of my 2010 Cubs profiles, which I'll continue to do throughout the rest of the offseason.

Here is a selection of those already done, and a few on the way soon.

Tom Gorzelanny

Xavier Nady

Angel Guzman

John Grabow

Carlos Silva

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