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Fontenot's versatility may strengthen bench

Fontenot's versatility may strengthen bench

MESA, Ariz. -- Mike Fontenot is more than willing to take a few grounders at shortstop. Whether or not he can handle the position could determine who will make up the Cubs' bench.

Bench coach Alan Trammell didn't waste any time, telling Fontenot on the first day of camp that the infielder will not only get work at second but also short.

"We've got a lot of people to look at here," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said Wednesday. "Either you're going to want a little more defense or you're going to want some offense. If Fontenot can play some shortstop, we'll look to carry a bat. If he can't, we'll be able to carry one less bat on the bench."

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The Cubs' starting eight is set, with the exception of second base. Fontenot and Jeff Baker are competing for regular playing time there. Piniella also said if shortstop Ryan Theriot was out for a significant amount of time, 19-year-old Starlin Castro would get the call.

If the Cubs had depth at the middle-infield spots, they could keep someone like Kevin Millar or Chad Tracy or Brad Snyder or Bryan LaHair or Micah Hoffpauir on the bench. They already plan on having a defensive outfielder, a defensive infielder (which would be either Fontenot or Baker) and a backup catcher in Koyie Hill. Piniella wants some offense.

"That's what Spring Training is for and we'll look at it," Piniella said. "No determination has been made."

Last season, whenever Fontenot wasn't starting, he would take grounders at shortstop during batting practice. In 2007 in the Minor Leagues, he played shortstop every day.

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"Everyone who knows Lou and has been around him knows he loves versatility," Fontenot said Wednesday. "When [Mark DeRosa] was here, he was our second baseman, but he played everywhere. I don't mind moving around. Like I told 'Tram' the first day, since I've moved over to the Cubs, I've gotten better defensively because I've had to play different positions. Everything -- the angles, moving your feet, different places -- makes you better as a player."

In the Minor Leagues, the Cubs try to have the middle infielders play both second and short, so they not only know their position but also their teammate's. They can understand the importance of a feed on a double play better if they know it from both sides.

Fontenot's No. 1 priority is to get his hitting back on track. He batted .305 in 2008, was named the starting second baseman for '09, and then skidded to a .236 average. He's key to the Cubs' lineup because he's one of the few left-handed bats.

"There's been a lot of talk about us not being left-handed enough," Fontenot said, "but as a group, we all want to do our part."

He didn't dwell on last season over the winter.

"I just wanted to remember the positive things and forget eveything else and move forward," he said. "That's what I did. I didn't sit around and think about it or anything like that. I was looking forward to the next year because every year you start with a clean slate, get out there and prove you can play again and go from there."

Fontenot and Baker are good friends, and both have said they enjoy the competition.

"I'd say it's just dead even now and let 'em battle out," Piniella said of second base. "Fontenot needs to get back to where he swings the bat like he did the first year. One little advantage in Fontenot's favor is the fact that he's left-handed and we're a lot right-handed lineup-wise. We'll let them compete."

Fontenot was pressed into duty at third base when Aramis Ramirez injured his shoulder last May. Maybe that's why he struggled? He batted just .216 that month.

"I don't know -- maybe it was a little bit of everything," Fontenot said. "A lot of times I was getting pitches to hit and I was fouling them off.

"There's times during the season when everybody gets out of whack or you get in a little bit of a funk," Fontenot said. "There has to be an adjustment. I don't think I adjusted well last year. By the time I adjusted, it was two weeks and my batting average was off by 30 points. To be able to stay in this game and play well, you have to be able to make the adjustments faster."

To his credit, Fontenot never took his offensive struggles onto the field.

"I'm glad I learned that in the past," he said. "I try not to take anything to the field. If you're not hitting well, then do things on defense."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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