Ludwick's injury could shake up Reds outfield
The 2013 season isn't even a full 24 hours old and already we have its first significant on-field injury — at least if we're not counting all of those significant on-field injuries that took place during spring training or the World Baseball Classic. In the third inning of Monday's game between the Reds and Angels in Cincinnati, leftfielder Ryan Ludwick caught his right (non-throwing) arm underneath his body while sliding into third base and left the game with a dislocated shoulder. He'll undergo an MRI, with a stint on the disabled list quite possible unless he suffered all but the mildest of strains.
It's a tough break for the 34-year-old Ludwick, a late bloomer who didn't establish himself in the majors until age 28, and who has yet to string together two particularly strong major league seasons in a row. After struggling in 2010 and 2011 as he migrated from the Cardinals to the Padres to the Pirates, he rebounded to hit .275/.346/.531 with 26 homers in 472 plate appearances for the Reds last year, netting himself a two-year, $15 million return engagement.
Even so, one has to wonder if there might be a silver lining here for the Reds. Recall that general manager Walt Jocketty took aim at the team's gaping void atop the batting order — an unspeakable .208/.254/.327 line from the leadoff spot — by trading outfielder Drew Stubbs and shorstop Didi Gregorius for Shin-Soo Choo right around the time that he re-signed Ludwick. With Ludwick returning, and All-Star Jay Bruce entrenched in rightfield, Jocketty nominated Choo to take over duties in centerfield despite his having started there just 10 times at the major league level, and only once after 2006. If his inexperience weren't enough to produce some amount of skepticism, the various defensive metrics put Choo at average to below average in rightfield, with both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating showing him in double digits below average.
With Ludwick out, the most likely fill-in in the lineup is Chris Heisey, a 28-year-old righty who hit an unspectacular .265/.315/.401 with seven homers last year — down from 18 homers and a .487 slugging percentage the year before — but who does have considerable experience in center. During his three-year major league career, he has 99 starts in the middle pasture, with the metrics showing him right around average. Though manager Dusty Baker used Heisey in left and kept Choo in center on Monday, it seems possible the team will rethink their alignment if they expect Ludwick to miss a substantial portion of the season.
Looking further ahead, centerfield is eventually likely to wind up the province top prospect Billy Hamilton, a 22-year-old speedster who stole a record 155 bases at High-A and Double-A combined last year. He began his conversion from shortstop to center in the Arizona Fall League back in November, and is likely to start the year at Triple-A Louisville so as to continue improving his flychasing. How Jocketty and Baker would squeeze Ludwick, Choo, Hamilton and Bruce into the lineup if all four were available is a hypothetical they don't have to address anytime soon. But at least they do have the depth to give themselves multiple options if this injury turns out to be a serious one.
Update: Shortly after I posted this, with the score 1-1 in the 12th inning, Choo misplayed a Peter Bourjos flyball into a one-out triple. Reds pitcher J.J. Hoover escaped that jam by striking out Mike Trout and inducing Erick Aybar to ground out, but he yielded two runs in the next inning as the Reds fell to the Angels, 3-1.
Hat tip to Chad Morimaya for this stellar GIF, which shows that Choo has a ways to go before he wins a Gold Glove. As for Ludwick, he won't undergo an MRI until Tuesday but Dayton Daily News beat writer Hal McCoy suggested that he could be gone six to eight weeks.