November 14, 2007

Twins Acquire Monroe From Cubs

Once upon a time, Craig Monroe was exactly the type of player that the Twins should be targeting. A minor-league veteran who didn't get his first extended chance in the majors until the age of 26, Monroe was claimed off waivers by the Tigers in 2002 and showed that his strong track record was no fluke by providing them with productive, low-cost seasons from 2003-2006. He's an example of the overlooked talent that's often available if you trust a player's minor-league performance.

Unfortunately, rather than go after a low-cost, mid-20s minor leaguer of their own who fits the Monroe mold, the Twins traded for the original version yesterday afternoon, sending a conditional player to be named later to the Cubs for his rights. Five years ago Monroe was in his prime and cost little, making him a good value. Now he's on the wrong side of 30 with production that has declined sharply over the past two seasons and is set to make around $5 million in 2008 via arbitration.

With that said, even after acquiring him the Twins aren't obligated to actually take Monroe to arbitration and hopefully the reasoning behind the trade was to simply give the Twins an exclusive negotiating window with him. The Cubs were going to non-tender him and the Twins could still do the same next month, so Monroe might be willing to accept a pay cut from last season's $4.8 million salary given that he's unlikely to get much interest on the open market.

In other words, by conditionally trading what figures to be at most a marginal prospect to the Cubs the Twins gave themselves a chance to talk privately with Monroe about accepting a lesser salary for 2008. If he agrees, then they pick up a useful role player for a reasonable price and lose the prospect. If he declines, then they can simply non-tender him next month at no monetary cost and be done with him while not giving the Cubs anything.

Indications are that the Twins have little interest in retaining Monroe for $5 million, which is good news considering that would be a mistake. Bill Smith no doubt wants to acquire a right-handed bat capable of adding power to a punchless, primarily left-handed lineup. Monroe fits that bill, with an average of 22 homers per 550 plate appearances during his career, but focusing on homers while overlooking the rest of his all-around game is the same error that they made with Tony Batista two offseasons ago.

To be clear, trading for and signing Monroe isn't akin to signing Batista, although it's interesting to note that his .256/.303/.446 career hitting line is nearly identical to Batista's .251/.299/.453 career mark. Monroe is a better player than Batista was when he signed with the Twins in 2006, but they're not totally dissimilar in that they both have low on-base percentages and mediocre defense that wipe away much of the value that comes from their power. Here are Monroe's season-by-season numbers:

YEAR       G      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     IsoP     IsoD
2003 128 .240 .287 .449 .736 .209 .047
2004 128 .293 .337 .488 .825 .195 .044
2005 157 .277 .322 .446 .768 .169 .045
2006 147 .255 .301 .482 .783 .227 .046
2007 122 .219 .268 .370 .638 .151 .049

Major-league left fielders as a whole batted .277/.347/.453 in 2007, which means that Monroe has been above average for his position offensively exactly once, back in 2004. In the three years since then he's hit just .254/.300/.439, including a career-worst .219/.268/.370 this season, which looks an awful lot like the ugly .246/.276/.365 hitting line that Rondell White posted for the Twins in 2006. Quite simply, Monroe is overmatched as an everyday player.

As a part-time player who's limited to starting against left-handers, Monroe has plenty of value to a team. For his career he's hit .273/.319/.495 versus southpaws, including .271/.309/.496 against them in 2007. On the other hand, he's hit just .249/.296/.425 against right-handers, including .194/.247/.308 against them in 2007. However, the Twins aren't (or at least shouldn't be) in a position to pay $5 million for someone who plays 2-3 times per week.

Even if Monroe bounces back to his pre-2007 level of performance--when he hit .263/.310/.461 prior to a career-worst season--the best-case scenario is essentially getting slightly below-average offensive production from a mediocre defender in left field. That's not worth $5 million to begin with for a team with a $75 million payroll and Monroe's secondary numbers suggest that the odds may be against that bounce back taking place.

YEAR      SO%     BB%
2003 19.4 5.5
2004 16.4 5.8
2005 15.3 5.8
2006 21.5 5.8
2007 25.1 6.1

Monroe has been swinging at everything dating back to his minor-league days and his walk rate has essentially remained unchanged from year to year. He draws a non-intentional walk about six percent of the time, which is basically the same walk rate that the free-swinging Torii Hunter posted during his 11 seasons in Minnesota. Monroe once managed a high enough batting average to somewhat make up for the lack of plate discipline, but that hasn't been the case over the past two years.

From 2001-2005, Monroe batted .266 while striking out in 17 percent of his plate appearances. Since then he's batted just .240 while striking out in 23 percent of his plate appearances. Increasing your strikeouts by 35 percent is a good way to go about lowering your batting average and his recent lack of contact is also perhaps a sign that Monroe isn't aging especially well upon entering his thirties. In other words, his decline looks real.

As a .270 hitter, Monroe's power is enough to make him a relatively valuable player despite little plate discipline or defensive value. As a .240 hitter, he eats up far too many outs for a corner outfielder who's mediocre defensively and can't make up for it by simply smacking 20 balls over the fence. As a fourth outfielder asked to hit against left-handers, Monroe is a good role player. As a starting outfielder asked to hit against everyone, Monroe is overmatched.

All of which is why Twins fans should hope that Smith made the trade with an eye toward getting Monroe to accept a pay cut for 2008. If the Twins can get him to agree to that--for example, let's say a one-year deal worth $2.5 million plus some incentives--then he's a solid bench bat capable of giving the lineup some much-needed right-handed pop against lefties. If instead the Twins intend to keep Monroe around at full price, then there are two options and neither of them are very good.

The first option is that the Twins plan to use Monroe as a platoon corner outfielder who'll play primarily against lefties, in which case they'll be utilizing him optimally while paying $5 million to fill a part-time role that can be filled rather easily for far less. The second option is that the Twins plan to use Monroe as an everyday player, in which case they'll be trotting out a starting left fielder who's well below par offensively about two-thirds of the time.

Whether it's significantly overpaying for a part-time player or sticking a sub par hitter in the lineup against right-handers, neither option is especially appealing. For now though, there's reason to believe that Smith wants nothing to do with Monroe at $5 million. "It gives us an opportunity to meet with his agent and talk about it by ourselves," Smith said of the trade. "I think that's a plus for us." Monroe can also be a "plus" for the Twins, but not at $5 million or as an everyday player.

Once you're done here, check out my latest "Daily Dose" column over at Rotoworld.

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