Thearon W. Henderson
The free agent outfielder hasn't been connected to Boston, but maybe he should
There are quite a few free agents that should be attractive to the Red Sox this off-season. Because of that, we'll take them one at a time, and profile those who Boston might be a match with. Just because they're covered here, though, doesn't mean they're endorsed: this is meant to be an exercise in finding out whether or not the players in question should be future Red Sox.
The Red Sox haven't been connected to Ryan Ludwick at all this off-season, but that doesn't mean they shouldn't be interested in the veteran outfielder. If you missed his 2012, you might consider this suggestion crazy: after all, Ludwick had a rough second half in 2010 with the Padres, and then failed to produce much of anything with either San Diego or Pittsburgh the next season. He bounced back this last season, though, and his final line is even more impressive when you consider that 2012 began much the way 2011 ended, with Ludwick failing to impress anyone.
Ludwick hit .275/.346/.531 for the year with the Reds, and did so without any kind of odd spike in his batting average on balls in play. You think the Red Sox got a good deal on their late signing of Cody Ross? Ryan Ludwick says everyone save the Reds missed out on an even better one, as Cincinnati signed him up for even less ($2 million) and did so a week before spring training. There was a mutual option built-in, for $5 million in 2013, but Ludwick understandably declined that given his season.
The outfielder was hitting just .207/.289/.405 on June 6, after starting 30 games. He was in a hitter-friendly park, in a relatively easy division, and it still wasn't bringing his career back to life. Things changed quickly, though, as Ludwick hit two homers in his next game, and the hits didn't stop from that point forward. Ludwick put together a .302/.369/.581 line in his last 86 contests, smacking 20 homers with 43 extra-base hits overall in that stretch. He hit at home (896 OPS), he hit on the road (856 OPS), he hit right-handers (140 split-adjusted OPS+) and left-handers (145 sOPS+) in nearly equal measure. He just flat-out hit, and often, and it helped propel the Reds to the NL Central title, despite not having Joey Votto around during much of the second half.
What changed? Not a whole lot, which makes Ludwick's season somewhat strange. His BABIP, as stated, was normal, relative to his own career, and that of the league. (At least, it was more normal by the time the year ended -- his BABIP was low for the season's first two months, as you could have guessed based on the Mendoza-level batting average.) His strikeout rates dipped, but not significantly. His walk rates were basically static, and he saw the same rate of pitches per plate appearance as well. Across the board, he just hit better this time around, against fastballs, breaking balls, everything. He just looked more like the Ryan Ludwick of old, the one before he was sent west to the Padres and the depressing-for-hitters canyon that is Petco Park.
He was at his healthiest, though, and that might be the most important. Little injuries had bothered him in 2010 and 2011, and he just didn't seem right at the plate or in the field. He looked older and slower than he was (especially on fastballs), but that wasn't the case in 2012, where he was mostly healthy until the end of the year. That's good news, in the sense that Ludwick is still a significant presence in the lineup when he's feeling right. But it's bad news when you consider what he looks like when he isn't.
Maybe it isn't entirely a health thing, though. After all, Ludwick wasn't hurt for the first time ever in 2010. Maybe Petco Park was the real problem. Ludwick is a .219/.297/.368 hitter at Petco in his career, and hit just .228/.301/.358 overall with the Padres. Parks can get into a player's head, and mess with their approach, their swing, their whole game. Maybe he couldn't get right in the short time he had out of Petco, while with the Pirates in the last few months of 2011, but by the time he had a winter to work things out away from the park that ruined his early 30s, maybe the demons were gone.
This is a whole lot of maybe. But Ludwick wouldn't be the first player to have his career made or broken by his environment. Fenway is a hitter's park, and Ludwick, a right-handed hitter, would likely do very well there. He'll be more expensive than the $5 million option he declined with the Reds, but heading into his age-34 campaign, with just 472 recent plate appearances of success to point to, he's not about to pull out a lucrative long-term deal with anyone, either. Boston should inquire on Ludwick as a bridge piece, much like they have with Hiroki Kuroda and already successfully managed with David Ortiz.
It all comes down to price, as does everything. But if Ludwick can be had on a one-year deal for real money, one that allows him to prove 2012 wasn't a fluke, then Boston should consider hosting that chance. If it needs to be a more expensive version of the contract he just had with the Reds, that could work, too. The Red Sox have the need for a middle-of-the-order bat, one who can draw an occasional walk, and Ludwick could very well be that hitter.