Many around the baseball world thought Ryan Ludwick's better days were behind him after the 2011 season. And who could honestly blame them?
The former UNLV Runnin' Rebel was coming off back-to-back seasons in which saw his offensive production decline sharply. He was traded midseason twice during those years, once from the Cardinals to San Diego in 2010, and then again in 2011 when the Padres sent him packing to Pittsburgh. The spacious corridors of PETCO Park appeared to limit his offensive productivity and a change of scenery to PNC Park didn't seem to help much either. Ludwick's value bottomed out after posting a .237 batting average, .310 on-base percentage, and only 13 homers in '11. Yes, his glory years as a member of the Cardinals were beginning to look like a distant memory and the end of his professional life as a major leaguer was fastly approaching.
That's when GM Walt Jocketty and the Reds entered the picture. Jocketty was in search for a right-handed slugger to fill the void in the outfield left behind by the departing Jonny Gomes. Ludwick, who struck up a relationship with Jocketty when the latter was the general manager in St. Louis, appeared to fit the bill. Both were willing to give each other a chance. The deed became official when Ludwick agreed to a one-year deal just one week prior to the beginning of spring training. The signing turned out to be a monumental steal for Cincinnati and the rest, as they say, is history.
Despite a slow start in the month of April (.190/.266/.397), Ludwick turned up the heat as the season wore in and recorded one of the best individual seasons of his 10-year MLB career. All totalled, the 33-year old ended up tallying a .275 average, .877 OPS, 26 homers, 28 doubles, and 80 runs batted in. He did all of this in just 125 games and only 422 at-bats.
However, Ludwick really stepped up when it mattered the most. He quickly emerged as the team's top run-producing hitter once Joey Votto was sidelined with a knee injury. Ludwick mashed 20 of his 26 bombs during the months of June, July, and August while maintaining an average well above .300. He eventually developed a reputation as a fan favorite, vocal leader, good teammate, and an all-around classy guy.
As much success as Ludwick enjoyed in 2012, I believe he's destined for more of the same or better in 2013. He is already comfortable with the players on the team and appears to be a perfect fit from a chemistry perspective. Being nestled between Jay Bruce, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips can certainly do that for you.
Furthermore, he has shown a great adaptation to hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park. He boasted a .555 slugging percentage and near-.900 OPS in 66 games at home last season. The banks of the Ohio seem to enjoy Ludwick's presence just as much as Ludwick enjoys it.
Another reason why the left-handed throwing outfielder is poised for another solid campaign is the inevitable increase in playing time he is sure to receive. Dusty Baker spent the first part of 2012 platooning Chris Heisey and Ludwick in left before Ludwick finally won the job outright. Now that the Reds are forking out $7M for Ludwick's services, and especially after the year Ludwick had last year, I would expect him to receive more than 125 game appearances at 422 ABs in '13 (barring injury).
All in all, the return of Ryan Ludwick to Cincinnati is a big step in helping the Redlegs get to where they want to go. Ludwick offers a reliable bat, admirable defense, experience, and much-needed leadership in the clubhouse. These are all things that will bode well in the long run for the reigning NL Central champs.