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RCG Mailbag: Could Ryan Ludwick Fit for the Rays?

By Robbie Knopf
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Welcome back to the RCG Mailbag, where we take some of those burning Tampa Bay Rays questions on your mind and attempt to give you some answers. To submit a question, comment on any of our posts here or on Facebook, email us at rayscoloredglasses at gmail dot com, or tweet me @RobbieKnopf.

Multiple readers ask: What about Ryan Ludwick to serve as that middle-of-the-order hitter the Rays are missing or at least a useful platoon guy?

Ryan Ludwick was in his prime not that long ago. He couldn’t become a big league regular until 2007, when he was already 28 years old, but he proceeded to have a nice run from then until age 33. Overall, he hit to a .266/.338/.472 line (116 OPS+) from 2007 to 2012, averaging 27 doubles, 22 homers, and 81 RBI per season.

Ludwick’s defense in the outfield was never great, making him not quite as valuable as those offensive numbers might indicate, but he established himself as around an average corner-outfield starter on the whole. Then he re-signed with the Cincinnati Reds after the big season he enjoyed with them in 2012, and that essentially marked the official end of his peak years.

Ludwick injured his shoulder on Opening Day of 2013, and he eventually required surgery that would sideline him most of the season. He ended up managing just a 71 OPS+ in the 140 plate appearances he did make, and improved health did not help his results too much in 2014. Overall, Ludwick hit to a .244/.308/.375 line (93 OPS+), not so bad, but also not enough to negate his terrible defense.

Ryan Ludwick probably should never be playing the outfield for an extended period of time ever again. The good news, though, is that the Rays have the DH spot to play with and could clearly give Ludwick at-bats there against left-handed pitching. The Rays currently lack a platoon partner for David DeJesus at DH, and it is also underrated how horrific James Loney was against left-handed pitching in 2014 (71 sOPS+, meaning he was 29% below-average in the “vs. LHP” split).

Maybe Loney will rebound, and it would be nice for the Rays to give Kevin Kiermaier and Nick Franklin chances to prove themselves against left-handed pitching. Even so, the Rays could really use a third right-handed bench bat to join Brandon Guyer and Logan Forsythe, and Ludwick could be a solid fit.

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Ryan Ludwick has almost no platoon split for his career, managing a .783 OPS against right-handed pitchers and a .776 mark versus lefties. However, that is actually quite misleading as his performance against right-handed pitching has deteriorated significantly while his results against lefties have stayed relatively stable. He has managed an sOPS+ at least 10% above-average against left-handed pitching each of the last four years–yes, even in his disastrous 2013–and hit them to an excellent .253/.324/.473 line (124 sOPS+) this past season.

Tim Beckham is currently lined up to be the last player on the Rays’ bench, but the Rays don’t really need another utility infielder thanks to the versatility of Ben Zobrist. Ludwick would give the Rays an option capable of being much more formidable against lefty pitching than Beckham, and his lack of remaining defensive skills should not bother the Rays too much. He isn’t even that terrible against righties and will give the Rays further depth in case of injury or poor performance from their other players.

The counterpoints here, though, are the price that it would take to sign Ludwick and what the Rays’ plans are for Steven Souza. The Rays would never commit more than $2 million to a guy like Ludwick, but even that seems like a little much for a right-handed bench bat. That looks even crazier when we consider that Souza could be in the big leagues after a couple of months.

The Rays would like a better option against left-handed pitching and some depth from injuries, but not signing a guy like Ludwick would allow them to assess whether Kiermaier and Franklin will ever be usable against lefties and also see what they have in Beckham. They would also save some money and avoid the inevitable roster crunch when Souza and Mikie Mahtook emerge as major league options.

If the Tampa Bay Rays sign a player like Ryan Ludwick, even for $2 million or less, it would represent something of a win-now move. The Rays would be elucidating the fact that they want to maximize their team’s short-term performance even if it would cost money and make things more complicated later on.

With that in mind, as a Rays fan, a Ryan Ludwick signing might be a move to root for, but it is unclear whether the Rays are actually committed to making such a transaction. There is a reasonable chance that the Rays instead sign no other position players to major league deals and instead add some guys on minor league contracts to compete for bench jobs in spring training.

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