The reaction on this blog to the Reds' reported $2.5M, one-year deal with Ryan Ludwick has been overwhelmingly negative. It's not for nothing - considering his free-falling numbers at the plate over the last three seasons - but the move needs some perspective. Whether or not they had a chance to acquire a significantly better outfielder, they didn't. Carlos Beltran and Seth Smith came and went.
By mid-January, the Reds had vastly improved their pitching staff but were faced with the left field bargain bin. They picked out former Cardinal Ryan Ludwick. Meanwhile, the best the team may have been able to do at this stage in the offseason (and perhaps in the context of their overall off-season strategy) was a Kosuke Fukudome or a Cody Ross.
Ludwick made his name is 2008 at age 29, slashing .299/.375/.591 en route to an All Star appearance and Silver Slugger award. He's been on the downslope since then, in both power and on-base-getting, with a .237/.310/.363 campaign split between San Diego and Pittsburgh last season. His ISO hit a career low, but so did his BABIP, while his walk rate (at 9.1%) was higher than it's ever been. He also spent 420 plate appearances in the offense-sapping grip of PETCO Park.
At age 33, moving to an offense-friendly environment, there's hope for a rebound. Coincidentally or not, Ludwick hit a number of deep flies to right field in San Diego that would likely be home runs in Cincinnati. He's also a capable fielder. From 2007-2010, he recorded at least 2.0 WAR while playing across the outfield. A GABP-aided bump in his hitting could make him a 2.0 WAR player again - though that is probably his ceiling.
The Ludwick signing adds another outfielder to the roster, so it's hard to see it as a negative from the perspective of the depth chart. Prior to adding him, Chris Heisey, Todd Frazier and Dennis Phipps were lining up as outfielders #3-#5. Whether the low-risk acquisition works out will hinge on how Ludwick is used. He was decent against lefties last year (.264/.350/.413), though his career splits are 50 points of OPS higher against righties. Meanwhile, Chris Heisey has had much-ballyhooed bizarro platoon splits in the majors that also have him better against righties. But as Petey Hendrix showed us, he mashed lefties in the minors. A swing adjustment and/or statistical regression could put things "right" again for Chris.
If Todd Frazier makes the team as a fifth outfielder/sixth infielder, he offers expertise against lefties. While the jury is still out on what happens with Heisey, Ludwick's production is probably at least as good against righties. Giving Frazier some reps against lefties and playing the pitcher/ballpark match-ups to split time between Ludwick and Heisey could optimize things in LF. Playing Ludwick full-time, however, not only squashes the upside that might lie in Frazier and Heisey, it also exposes Ludwick - who has not played like a full time starter in 3 seasons.
Dusty doesn't generally put up with time sharing situations where someone isn't at least nominally "the starter." And maybe with no clear platoon, they should sink or swim with one guy. I doubt there's many right now that think it should be Ryan Ludwick. But let's not be deprived of one of our favorite positions to argue about once the season starts.