Fresh start puts Monroe on a mission
Outfielder isn't shy about revealing his intention to crack lineup
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Craig Monroe isn't shy about admitting his intentions this spring.
The Pirates signed Monroe to a Minor League contract this winter and invited him to Spring Training to give him a chance to win a role as a backup outfielder.
However, Monroe doesn't intend to be satisfied with just making the team. Despite a 2008 season that Monroe describes as the most trying and frustrating year of his career (more on that later), he doesn't seem himself as a backup. He believes he's still has everyday production to offer.
"There is no doubt in my mind that I'm an everyday player," Monroe said. "Not to knock any of these guys on this team -- they are young and very talented players -- but my goal is to come here and make this team. It may start in a backup role, but to know what I've done in this game, I'm looking forward to then pushing people. That's what this game is all about. It's about working hard and pushing people out. That's my intention."
How's that for an introduction?
It might be a little premature for Monroe to begin talking about stealing a starting spot, as he certainly has a number of obstacles to clear before fighting for a prominent role on this team. But as Monroe talks about the place that he's now at both mentally and physically, it gives a bit more insight into why Monroe feels justified in making such lofty personal expectations.
Monroe spent the offseason looking for the right place to have a fresh start. When the Pirates contacted him and expressed their need for a right-handed hitting outfielder, Monroe found a match.
Though he doesn't hold any sort of vendetta against the Twins, Monroe knew he had to avoid the sort of situation that he fell into with the Twins last year. He had been traded to the club in November 2007, and at the time, Monroe looked to have an upper hand at a starting spot, whether that be as the team's designated hitter or outfielder.
But days later, the Twins acquired outfielder Delmon Young, who stepped in ahead of Monroe on the depth chart. Monroe then knew his fate was sealed when, just weeks before the start of Spring Training, the Twins acquired outfielder Carlos Gomez as a part of the Johan Santana deal.
For Monroe, it was immediately disheartening.
"I knew early on I was stuck," said Monroe, who had been an everyday player in Detroit from 2003-06 and in much of '07.
And mentally, he never recovered.
"It beats you down," he said. "You used to wake up in the morning thinking, 'Man, I can't wait to get to the field today' because you know you're in there. It kind of messes with your psyche a little bit when you know that there is no chance that you're going to get in the lineup. I didn't know how to handle it because I had never been put in that situation."
Monroe's numbers show that he didn't handle it very well. Though he had been a fairly consistent run-producer during his years in Detroit, he never adapted to a bench role with the Twins.
He finished the season with a batting average just a smudge above the Mendoza Line. He had only 163 total at-bats.
"I understand there are no excuses and you shouldn't make excuses, but I think that being a baseball person and understanding the game, if you get 160 at-bats scattered over five months, it's pretty tough to be consistent," said Monroe, who made the start on Wednesday against his former Twins teammates. "Imagine trying to keep your timing and keep your rhythm when you're playing once every six or seven days. It gets a little tough."
To make matters worse, Monroe had even fewer opportunities to showcase his skills against defensively, a part of the game that he has always taken significant pride in. He appeared in the outfield in only 11 games last season. The other 35 games he played in, Monroe did so as the designated hitter.
"If you're not hitting, you can go out and make a play and that confidence level suddenly raises and you can then have a good at-bat," Monroe said. "When all you're doing is watching video, you become clouded."
The Twins released Monroe in August.
However, in spite of enduring a lot of sitting last year, Monroe used the words "rejuvenated" and "refreshed" when describing how he felt reporting to Spring Training this season. He has his reasons why.
For one, Monroe already sees the benefits of a new approach at the plate. He spent this offseason working with Rangers hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo and the two worked to rid Monroe of the high-leg kick he does during his swing.
When Monroe reported to Bradenton, he was even further encouraged by the fact that Pirates hitting coach Don Long had planned to address the high-leg kick himself.
"It's great for me to know that nobody told me to do this, but I did it on my own," Monroe said of the change. "It is refreshing to know that not only did I work hard, but I worked smart."
The objective behind making the change is simple: A more stable stance will produce better control of the head and body. The hope is that it cuts down on Monroe's strikeout total (he had 48 in 163 at-bats last year) and that it will help him in recognizing pitches.
"He's taken to it pretty well," manager John Russell said of the adjustment. "He's made a lot of progress with it. I think the more he does it, the more he's comfortable with it."
As important as that adjustment may be, Monroe's fresh perspective has more to do with what he calls an improved state of mind.
Monroe now prefers to view his '08 trials as a growing experience. Was it pleasant? Of course not. But it has Monroe believing that he now understands the nuances of being a backup player and what it will take for him to mentally better prepare for the role.
"It was something difficult. It was something new," Monroe said of his role last season. "For me, it was just something that I wasn't prepared for. I just feel like I'm better prepared for both roles now."
Monroe will have to better adapt to a backup role if he hopes to have success in Pittsburgh. Despite his intentions of working his way into a starting spot, he'll start as a backup -- that is, if he makes the team first.
He will be given every opportunity to go north with the team in April, and he will certainly benefit from being a right-handed option. The top four outfielders on the depth chart are all left-handed hitters, meaning the Pirates need the right-handed option.
Monroe would be a possibility, as would be Steve Pearce. Garrett Jones and Luis Cruz, both of whom can play in the infield or outfield, are also options as the Pirates look to fill out their bench.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.