December 12, 2007

Twins Sign Monroe

He's only been on the job for about two months, but general manager Bill Smith has already proven to be very different than predecessor Terry Ryan in several important ways. Last month's huge swap that sent Matt Garza, Jason Bartlett, and Eduardo Morlan to the Devil Rays for Delmon Young, Brendan Harris, and Jason Pridie proved that Smith is significantly more willing to take risks than Ryan, who shied away from such franchise-altering moves during the final days of his tenure.

Beyond that, from the Garza-for-Young deal and letting Torii Hunter walk via free agency to shopping Johan Santana and cutting Lew Ford and Jason Tyner loose, Smith has also shown that he's far less willing to let loyalty guide his decision-making. I'm not especially fond of the six-player swap with the Devil Rays and for all his faults Tyner was worth keeping around, but generally speaking more risks and less loyalty are things that will serve Smith well compared to Ryan's final couple years at the helm.

Unfortunately, Smith showed yesterday that he's still very much like Ryan when it comes to overvaluing veteran mediocrity, signing Craig Monroe to a one-year deal worth $3.82 million plus incentives. The Twins acquired Monroe's rights from the Cubs last month for a conditional player to be named later, hoping that he'd accept a pay cut from his 2007 salary while realizing that they could simply non-tender him without owing anything if he balked.

The Twins got what they wanted, as Monroe agreed to slice his 2007 salary by 20 percent, which is the maximum allowed for an arbitration-eligible player. However, getting what they wanted also involves paying $3.82 million for a 31-year-old corner outfielder who was never all that good to begin with, has declined in three straight seasons, and batted just .219/.268/.370 in 2007. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Monroe's contract is unique in that it's only partially guaranteed. If the Twins decide to cut him during spring training, they'll be on the hook for just one-sixth of his total salary, which comes out to "only" $636,667. Of course, the odds of the penny pinching Twins throwing away over $600,000 based on how Monroe looks in a few meaningless exhibition games down in Florida are beyond slim. He'll make the team and he'll make at least $3.82 million.

The Twins' front office no doubt views Monroe as a "power hitter" and "proven run producer" because he averaged 22 homers and 82 RBIs while with the Tigers from 2003-2006. However, that's the same type of misguided thinking that led Ryan to sign Tony Batista two offseasons ago. Like Batista back then, Monroe has shown that he's no longer the player he was just a few seasons ago. And like Batista back then, the player that Monroe was just a few seasons ago wasn't especially good to begin with.

Lost in the nice-looking homer and RBI totals is that Monroe has hit .256/.303/.446 over 2,658 career plate appearances in the majors, which is nearly identical to Batista's .251/.299/.453 career mark. He's still a better player now than Batista was in 2006, but in both cases the Twins willingly signed up for low on-base percentages and mediocre defense that wipe away whatever value that comes from the decent power.

Monroe has some power, but major-league corner outfielders are supposed to have some pop in their bats and his all-around offensive game is lacking for the position. MLB corner outfielders as a whole batted .277/.347/.453 in 2007, which is about nine percent better than Monroe's career numbers and a level of production that he hasn't approached since 2004. Even at his best Monroe was more or less an average hitter for a corner outfielder, and those days are likely gone:

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

Monroe has hit .254/.300/.439 over the past three seasons and his .219/.268/.370 line from 2007 looks like something that belongs to Rondell White. However you slice it, Monroe is overmatched as an everyday player. Of course, with Young and Michael Cuddyer established in the outfield corners and Jason Kubel seemingly entrenched at designated hitter, the odds of Monroe being an everyday player appear minimal unless the Twins get crazy and play Monroe or Young in center field.

A right-handed bat who's produced a horrible .249/.296/.425 hitting line against right-handed pitching during his career--including a pathetic .194/.247/.308 against righties in 2007--the optimal use for Monroe is to limit him almost exclusively to facing left-handed pitching. For his career he's batted .273/.319/.495 versus left-handers, including .271/.309/.496 against them despite his overall struggles in 2007. As a platoon starter against lefties, Monroe has some value.

Unfortunately, that value isn't anywhere close to $3.82 million for a small-payroll team and as far as lefty-mashing platoon bats go Monroe isn't even particularly outstanding. Monroe has hit .281/.332/.481 against lefties over the past three seasons, which looks pretty good until you realize that it's actually below-average production for a right-handed hitting corner outfielder facing left-handed pitching. Most decent right-handed hitters thrive against lefties and true lefty mashers tend to ... well, mash them.

Kevin Mench, who was non-tendered by the Brewers this week and will probably sign somewhere for less than Monroe, hit .305/.368/.558 against southpaws over the past three seasons. Emil Brown, who was non-tendered by the Royals yesterday, batted .289/.353/.488 against lefties during that same three-year span. Former favorite Bobby Kielty, who was non-tendered by the Red Sox two weeks ago, hit .313/.372/.494 against lefties from 2005-2007.

Those are just three examples of players who recently became available, but the point is that finding a right-handed bat capable of matching Monroe's production against lefties isn't overly difficult. Mench, Brown, and Kielty are each better hitters than Monroe against lefties, yet were all cut loose by teams that were unwilling to pay them what the Twins are going to pay Monroe in 2008. Corner outfielders capable of posting solid numbers against lefties are available cheaply all the time.

Even if Monroe bounces back from his awful 2007 season, the Twins have paid a premium for a part-time player who's at best mediocre offensively and defensively. And counting on that bounce back taking place is a mistake as well. Monroe's strikeout rate has gone from 15.3 percent in 2005 to 21.5 percent in 2006 and 25.1 percent in 2007, with the decreased ability to make contact suggesting that returning to his pre-2007 performance could prove tough.

Monroe has always been a free swinger, drawing a non-intentional walk in fewer than six percent of his career plate appearances (about the same rate as Hunter). He 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 trips to the plate.

Striking out about 35 percent more often is a sure-fire way to see your batting average plummet and it's also a sign that Monroe hasn't taken well to being on the wrong side of 30. In other words, reversing what has been a steady multi-year decline is going to be extremely difficult and the payoff is modest even if he succeeds. Monroe is ill-suited to be an everyday player and vastly overpaid as a reserve, and there are better, cheaper players available to fill either role.

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

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