With the versatile Mark DeRosa headed to Cleveland for a trio of minor league arms (Jeff Stevens, Chris Archer and John Gaub), there may be competition for the second base position in the Windy City. The Cubs brought in a “Proven Veteran” to hold down the job (more on him later), but the club’s best bet to replace DeRosa at the keystone was already on the roster: Mike Fontenot.
Originally a 21st-round pick by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 1999 amateur draft, Fontenot decided to attend Louisiana State University instead of signing with Tampa. Teaming with Ryan Theriot, the lefty-swinging Fontenot enjoyed a successful collegiate career which improved his draft stock dramatically. After leading the Tigers to the 2000 College World Series, Fontenot was plucked by the Baltimore Orioles with the 19th overall selection in the 2001 draft. He endured a lukewarm first season in 2002 (.264/.333/.364 in 481 AB at High-A Frederick), but turned in a solid campaign at AA Bowie in 2003 (.325/.399/.481 in 449 AB).
Following a so-so season at AAA Ottawa in 2004 (.279/.346/.420 in 524 AB), Fontenot was shipped to the North Siders, along with Jerry Hairston Jr. and Dave Crouthers, in exchange for Sammy Sosa. Unfortunately for the Orioles, Sosa’s goose was cooked (he would turn in a sub-replacement level performance in his only season in Baltimore). Fontenot, meanwhile, bided his time in AAA during the ’05 and ’06 seasons before finally getting some major league playing time over the past two years.
In about a full-season’s worth of plate appearances, the diminutive second baseman has posted a .290/.369/.457 line, with a 10.8 BB% and a 19.6% whiff rate. Despite receiving just 284 PA last season, Fontenot was about 16 runs above average with the bat, posting a .395 wOBA.
When evaluating Fontenot, it is important to keep in mind that we have a relatively small sample size in terms of projecting his future performance. As such, Marcel isn’t as useful for a player like this (as evidenced by his 0.67 REL score; there’s just not a whole lot of data to go on). For what it’s worth, Marcel projects Fontenot to post a .355 wOBA in 2009. Let’s be pessimistic and pare that figure down to .345. If the 5-8, 170 pounder were to get regular playing time (let’s say, 600 PA), he would be about 5.2 runs above average with the bat.
Compare that to the fellow whom the Cubs just inked to a questionable two-year, $4.9 million deal: Aaron Miles. The 32 year-old posted a decent .331 wOBA in 2008, but that performance was fueled by a .343 BABIP figure: Miles was more or less than same slappy hitter who rarely walks (career 5.6 BB%) and does not drive the ball (.076 ISO). Marcel projects Miles to post a .308 wOBA in ’09. Over 600 PA, that comes out to about -14.1 runs compared to an average hitter. Clearly, Fontenot is the superior batsman.
It stands to reason, then, that Chicago feels as though Miles’ defensive work makes up the difference. However, it’s pretty difficult to find justification on that front either. Caveat emptor again on the sample size, but Fontenot has posted a 12.4 UZR/150 at second base thus far. Let’s again be pessimistic and halve that number, making Fontenot a +6.2 defender per 150 games. That figure is still well ahead of Miles, who has a career -3.5 UZR/150 at second. Even if we take his marks over the past three years (admittedly better than his career work) and weigh them accordingly, Miles comes out as a +1 run defender. So, Let’s tally up the scores of our second base contestants…
+ 5.2 hitting
+ 2.5 position adjustment
+20 replacement level
= 33.9 Runs Above Replacement, 3.4 WAR
+2.5 position adjustment
+20 replacement level
= 9.4 Runs Above Replacement, 0.94 WAR
Using these projections, Fontenot bests Miles by nearly two and a half wins. Even if you think that Fontenot’s numbers are still too optimistic and Miles’ too low, it’s exceedingly difficult to close that wide of a gap. Fontenot is without question the better hitter, and it seems likely that his glove will help out the pitching staff more than Miles’ would to boot.
Fantasy owners will want to watch Chicago’s second base situation closely. If the Cubs make the right choice, Mike Fontenot could be a fairly valuable commodity as an up-the-middle player with decent on-base skills and a little more sock than one might think. In a battle between “scrappy” middle infielders, this one really isn’t that close.