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Cubbies at the Keystone

I thought that it would be a good time to look at another spring training position competition, and today we're going to look at one that hits a bit closer to home as a Chicago fan: the Cubs' second basemen. About two weeks ago, I looked at how Minnesota should handle their situation at third base, and today we're moving on to the middle infield.

Of course, many of us Cub fans remember the high hopes that we had for Mike Fontenot after he posted a .395 wOBA and a 3.0 WAR in 284 PA in 2008, only to have them crushed when he completely failed to replicate his above average power, high line drive rate, and high walk rate. Unlike the winter before, the '08-'09 offseason didn't include nearly as much talk of Brian Roberts, a lot of Cub fans were fairly excited about seeing Mike play everyday. And alas..

He finished the year with a .296 wOBA, about 11.5 runs below average for the year, in 419 PA. The Cubs had Aaron Miles on the roster already, but then again, he was probably my least favorite player on the team last year ($4.9M for Miles? Seriously? How? Did Hendry think it was 2003 and confuse Miles with Giles?), so it's probably good that the Cubs called up Andres Blanco and traded for Jeff Baker to try to shore up the position.

Baker played well while splitting time at second and third, posting a .355 wOBA and a 1.5 WAR in 69 games with the Cubs. Blanco was his usual self: good glove, awful bat. And minor league fodder Bobby Scales proved to be just that.

So presumably, one would expect that the Cubs would look at some of the second baseman on the market this winter, such as Orlando Hudson and Felipe Lopez. For $1M plus incentives, Lopez signed with the rival Red Birds, while GM Jim Hendry jumped to sign mediocre lefty reliever John Grabow to a two-year, $7.5M deal. (Side note: How freaking worthless was that Grabow signing? I mean, the guy has posted unimpressive metrics and lucky ERA's for two years. So you give him pretty good money for a reliever in this market? They could have had Beimel, Lopez and probably some money to spare. Awesome.)

Moving on, the candidates at second base for the Cubs for 2010 look an awful lot like the guys who played the position in 2009..    probably because they are. Once again, the Cubs are going into a season with Fontenot as the front-runner for time at second, with Baker and Blanco fighting for playing time at the position as well.

Fontenot, 30, has some nice offensive upside, as we all saw in the seasons prior to 2009. Before last season, Fontenot had posted a .290/.369/.457 line in 549 plate appearances split primarily between two seasons in Chicago. In the minors, he has a career line of .289/.367/.447 (look familiar..?), and showed continued improvement in his performance over the course of four years spent primarily in Triple-A.

The projection systems have Fontenot at about league average offensively, with Marcel predicting an exactly league average 100 wRC+, as he gets some of his luck back but not the .200+ ISO and walk rate over 12%. He's also an above average defender, with a UZR/150 of 10.4 in 214 games at second base. Jeff Zimmerman projects Fontenot at +4 over 150 games next season, while CHONE's TotalZone projection has him at about +1 over 150 games for next season. 

But the Cubs have a serious opportunity to get some value at the position if handled properly. Fontenot, for his career, has a pretty pronounced platoon split, with a wOBA of .340 against RHP and a horrid .276 wOBA against LHP. Combine the lefty-hitting Fontenot with the right-handed Baker, and it seems that the Cubs have set themselves up with a solid platoon situation.

Baker, like Fontenot, is a solid defender at second, and he's mashed lefties to the tune of a .375 wOBA for his career, compared to a .316 mark against right-handed pitching. Of course, we can't really expect Baker to maintain a .375 wOBA against lefties, but he's had a strong track record against them throughout his professional career, so a .360 wOBA seems reasonable. Take that and a solid .330-.340 wOBA from Fontenot, and the Cubs are getting some awfully solid production from second base.

Certainly, Lou won't be able to shield Fontenot from lefties all of the time and vice versa, but right now the Cubs have two solid defensive second baseman on their roster, one who hits righties well and one who hits lefties quite well. It's obviously not a sure thing that combined they'll make for above average production at second base, the sample sizes for Baker and Fontenot are quite small, especially when divided into platoon data. But there appears to be decent reason to believe that the Cubs can get pretty solid production from the keystone if Baker and Fontenot are healthy. 

Many have wondered why the Cubs didn't address their second base situation this winter, and I think the answer is pretty simple: They didn't want to block Starlin Castro, not sure if you've ever heard of him, and the Fontenot/Baker combination is probably better than it looks at first glance.