The story on Craig Monroe throughout his career is that he’s a 4th outfielder that has some legitimate, albeit inconsistent power. Monroe will turn 28 during spring training in 2005 so we should be seeing the peak of his production. Fortunately, 2004 seemed to be a big step forward for Craig.
Craig finished the season hitting a very respectable .293/.337/.488. That amounted to a considerable improvement over his 2003 season .240/.287/.449. His OPS+ of 115 was solid and he saw playing time at all 3 outfield positions.
Monroe got significant playing time early in the season when Dmitri Young went down with his broken leg. He struggled early on, but then his average began to rise during May and by the end of June he was hitting .279. However, Monroe’s power had all but vanished. His slugging percentage was a pitiful .371 at the All Star break.
Unfortunately, Craig had a stint on the DL in late July. However when he returned, he returned in dramatic fashion. Before going on the DL, Monroe had 4 homers on the season. Upon returning on August 8th, he crushed 14 dingers over the last two months of the season. He slugged .764 and .547 in August and September respectively. He also managed to keep his batting average in the .290’s during those months.
Also noteworthy for Craig are his lefty/righty splits. In 2003 he destroyed left handed pitchers. In fact the disparity between the way he hit lefties and righties was way outside the normal bounds. Right handed hitters are expected to have an OPS 9% better against lefties than righties. In 2003 Monroe was 61% better against southpaws so the expectation was that he would probably hit righties a little better, and lefties a little worse in the future. This played out in strongly in 2004.
Last year Craig’s OPS against left handers was .722, but against right handers it was .881. The result is that instead of the expected ratio of 1.09, it was .82. After the dramatic correction last year, his career ratio is 1.12 which is much closer to what is expected. The really good news is that his 2003 numbers against lefthanders were more indicative of his talent than his 2003 numbers against right handers.
If Monroe can continue to improve in 2005 his bat should be good enough to keep him in the lineup. The Tigers outfield will be crowded next year, but Monroe has an advantage in that he can competently play all 3 positions. He doesn’t have the range of a typical centerfielder, but can make spot starts there. Rondell White will get the bulk of the playing time in left. That leaves right field as the primary position available for Monroe. He has the power to actually play a corner outfield position which is more than can be said for Bobby Higginson.
I believe that Monroe will be arbitration eligible, but he should still be able to be retained for well under $1 million (and if he’s not arb-elg, he could be a bargain at $330k). Given that Monroe is coming into his peak seasons, I don’t know that the Tigers can find a free agent bat that can match Monroe’s at a similar price. The fact that he was able to establish last year that he can hit right handed pitching was an encouraging sign. Monroe still strikes out a lot, tries to pull too many pitches, and doesn’t walk enough. However, short of the Tigers signing Carlos Beltran, Monroe should be part of the Tigers plans next season.