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Ryan Ludwick Returns to The Land of the Powerful

The migration of players from San Diego to Cincinnati continued on Monday — albeit with a stopover in Pittsburgh — as Ryan Ludwick signed a one-year deal with the Reds. Assuming some unforeseen incident doesn’t keep Ludwick from suiting up for Dusty Baker, it will be Ludwick’s fourth club — and third in the NL Central — since opening day 2010.

Since leaving St. Louis at the 2010 trade deadline, Ludwick has struggled to make a real impact for either his team or in a fantasy sense. He hit .228/.301/.358 with 17 HR in the 160 games he spent in San Diego and a slightly better .232/.341/.330 with 2 HR during his abbreviated stint with the Pirates at the end of the 2011. So, is there any hope that Ludwick will return to the kind of production he showed during his four years in St. Louis when he hit .280/.349/.507?

A .280 average with 21 HR strikes me as a little too glass-half-full, but it isn’t completely out of the question. Obviously any long-term move out of San Diego is a good thing for a hitter, but it is especially good for Ludwick, who produces most of his power on balls to left field. PETCO Park isn’t exceptionally deep down the line at 334 ft, but at 401 ft the left field alley is the deepest part of the park. Ludwick’s new home, Great America Ball Park, on the other hand, will indulge Ludwick’s proclivities a little better. It’s shorter down the line at 328 ft and a bit more forgiving in the gap at 379 ft, though it isn’t particularly shallow in left-center or in center field. GAB’s 133 HR park factor for righties certainly bodes well, especially coming from San Diego (95) and Pittsburgh (73). The fact that he’ll get to face the Pirates, Cubs, and Astros multiple times in 2012 certainly won’t hurt his potential production either.

Standing in the way of a resurgence for Ludwick is a rather crowded Reds outfield. Jay Bruce is locked into his spot in right field, which he has certainly earned, and Drew Stubbs will get the vast majority of the starts in center field. That leaves left field open for some combination of Ludwick, Chris Heisey, and Todd Frazier. If Scott Rolen can’t stay healthy, that could open up a spot for Frazier and relax the roster crunch a little bit, but there’s no way to know if that will happen at this point.

In a perfect world, the Reds could platoon Heisey and Ludwick, since Heisey wears out right-handed pitching, but struggles against lefties. Unfortunately, Ludwick’s splits tilt the same way; he hits lefties better than Heisey does — .237/.316/.435 for Ludwick compared to Heisey’s .180/.248/.300 — but using Ludwick only on his weaker side would be a curious decision when there are lefty-mashers left on the market. Heisey is the younger of the two by more than a few years, which is typically a decent guess when trying to figure out what the x-factor will be, but the Reds have shown a clear focus on winning this year or in the very near future — and Ludwick has a mutual option for 2013 — which somewhat mitigates Heisey’s age advantage.

I think Ludwick’s power will come back enough to make him a workable option in NL-only and some mixed leagues, but not having a clear stake on the playing time adds in an extra element of risk. I think he will get the start on opening day, but the real question to me is how long he keeps the job after he hits a slump. Heisey had a better 2011 than Ludwick did and if I had to guess which one was trending up and which was trending down, Heisey gets the advantage there as well. Still, if Ludwick hits well to open the season, there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue to get playing time with Heisey and Frazier roving and filling in the gaps as needed. It’s a battle to watch once camps open, but unless either Heisey or Frazier has an eye-opening spring training, Ludwick will probably get the nod, which makes him a safe play to open the season. After that, it’s all about production.