When the Reds let Jonny Gomes walk in free agency this past winter, it seemed Chris Heisey might finally get a chance to show that he could stick as the team’s everyday left fielder. The 27-year-old Heisey hit .254/.309/.487 last season, with an impressive 18 home runs in 308 plate appearances. His plate discipline left much to be desired, but his minor-league track record suggested that an uptick in walks and a decrease in strikeouts could be forthcoming.
On January 17, though, the Reds inked Ryan Ludwick to a one-year, $2.5 million deal, threatening the expected increase in Heisey’s playing time. The fit was odd, to say the least. Ludwick—coming off a .237/.310/.363 campaign split between the Padres and Pirates—did not offer much that Heisey wasn’t already providing. Both are right-handed hitters. Both have reverse platoon splits (although Heisey’s may be the product of a small sample size). Both produce the bulk of their value in the batter’s box.
Yet general manager Walt Jocketty was intrigued by Ludwick, perhaps hearkening back to the 33-year-old’s remarkable 6.3 WARP effort in 2008. Ludwick has not achieved anything remotely close to that level of success since, but that row on his career stat sheet continues keep him employed. On Wednesday, it landed him a spot in manager Dusty Baker’s regular lineup.
Both Heisey and Ludwick took their lumps this spring, as each struck out 14 times in 53 at-bats. The position battle was not won in Arizona. But with the left-handed Mark Buehrle set to oppose the Reds in their opener, Baker is going with Ludwick, and that’s an ominous sign for Heisey.
Baker can point to Heisey’s lowly .180/.248/.300 line against southpaws as a big-leaguer, but those numbers were produced in just 166 plate appearances and contrast starkly with his minor-league splits. Ludwick has had 947 plate appearances to prove himself against lefties, and his .237/.316/.435 career line over that span suggests that this unorthodox platoon arrangement is destined to fail.
The average triple slash for left fielders in 2011 was .255/.319/.407. Based on those numbers, the Reds can expect the combination of Heisey and Ludwick to place them in the middle of the pack in 2012, perhaps regardless of how they are used. But considering how far removed Ludwick is from his breakout campaign in 2008, there is more upside with Heisey. And apart from the distant 2008 season, the only difference between Ludwick and Heisey is that the former has gotten his chance, while the latter is still waiting for it.
PECOTA projects Ludwick to be worth 1.4 wins over 408 plate appearances this season; it is somewhat more bullish on Heisey, tabbing him for 2.2 WARP in 472 trips. The offseason additions of Mat Latos, Sean Marshall, and Ryan Madson suggested that the Reds were all-in on the window created by the departure of Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. And in a tight NL Central race, a breakout season from Heisey could make all the difference.