Reds' outfielder Ryan Ludwick came to the plate just twice in 2013 before his season was interrupted by an injury. That's only two trips to the box for the hitter who posted a 128 OPS+ in 2012, when he helped keep the Reds' offense dangerous even after it lost its most productive hitter, Joey Votto, to injury. The 2013 Reds might not have a Ludwick to step in the same way, but they do have options.
They're going to need them, too, as Ludwick is scheduled to undergo surgery on Wednesday to repair torn cartilage in his dislocated right shoulder. Normally, a dislocated shoulder might take a month or six weeks to return from, but if there is extensive damage, things get a bit cloudier. It has yet to be seen just how long Ludwick will be out -- the early estimates put it at three months -- but the fact he needs surgery to make things right is not a positive.
Just how he'll perform when he returns is up in the air as well. Shoulders are tricky, and Ludwick has had issues in the past being a productive player if he wasn't feeling completely healthy. Ask the Padres how that went for them in 2010 and 2011, when Ludwick helped tank their playoff hopes with poor showings at the plate, then ended up trades to the Pirates a year later following an even worse season. Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a partially separated shoulder in Boston's home opener in 2012. He returned three months later, in July, and hit just .278/.314/.379 the rest of the way. This ineffective display came on the heels of Ellsbury's MVP-esque 2011 campaign, when he went deep 32 times and slugged .552. As I said, shoulders are tricky.
So, in the meantime, who plays for Ludwick? The Reds are expected to call up outfielder Derrick Robinson to claim the vacant roster spot, and general manager Walt Jocketty says that Shin-Soo Choo will not be moving over from center field to left while Ludwick is gone. That leaves -- other than Robinson, who is a center fielder with a 645 career OPS in the minors -- Chris Heisey as the most likely candidate for left field duty in Ludwick's absence.
Heisey has 338 games and 913 plate appearances in the majors, and the 29-year-old has hit .258/.314/.436 in that time. Given his hitter-friendly home park, that comes out to basically average offensively, and a little below that for a left fielder. While he's maybe not a particularly useful center fielder defensively, he can handle left, and he's filling in for a 35-year-old who is at the position for his bat, anyway. Heisey's presence might actually make Choo in center a little less painful, even if he can't rake like Ludwick.
And Heisey really can't rake like Ludwick, especially not in an everyday role. Heisey has hit his fellow right-handers well enough in his career, but southpaws have been a problem for him, to the tune of a .214/.272/.376 line in 255 career plate appearances. While he should fill in fine for a month and change no problem, Ludwick is going to miss more time than that -- the Reds might need to look elsewhere eventually. Then again, this is arguably the top lineup in the NL even without Ludwick, so maybe they'll wait it out.
If not, though, there is an intriguing option beyond Heisey. The Reds do have top prospect Billy Hamilton, who converted to center field from shortstop this past off-season while in the Arizona Fall League. The problem is that Hamilton has not played above Double-A yet, and while he had 155 stolen bases (yes, you read that correctly) in 2012 between High- and Double-A, he needs to get on base in order to swipe a bag or 100. He has shown quality plate discipline in the minors, but it's tough to rely on a 22-year-old with no experience at the minors' top level as of April 2. Maybe on May 2 or June 2, it will be a different conversation.
For now, it's likely Heisey keeping the seat warm for Ludwick, with the Reds hoping they aren't the lucky owners of the 2013 version of Jacoby Ellsbury. If that turns out to be the case, though, and Ludwick ends up missing a significant chunk of the season, at least Cincinnati might already have their long-term answer on hand.