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Position/Role Battles: The Reds' Left Fielder

Dusty Baker never met a veteran player he didn't want to entrust with a bit of extra playing time, but that doesn't mean Ryan Ludwick should automatically be on your fantasy short list this season. Ludwick agreed to sign with the Reds last month and is targeted to share time in left field alongside Chris Heisey and Todd Frazier. It was a logical depth signing given that the Reds' 40-man roster was short on outfielders, but it also creates a battle for playing time between some flawed players.

Ludwick hit .299/.375/.591 in a breakout 2008 campaign, smacking 37 homers and looking like a very nice complement to Albert Pujols in the Cardinals' lineup.  Since then, however, Ludwick has struggled.  His OPS has steadily declined in each of the past three seasons, with an overall battling line of .251/.321/.409 over that stretch.  You can attiribute part of that decline to 659 plate appearances at PETCO Park as a member of the Padres, but the fact is Ludwick turns 34 in July and simply looks like a player on the downhill slope of his career.

Could he rediscover his power at the hitter-friendly Great American Ball Park?  It's possible, but what will really hurt Ludwick's fantasy value is the fact that the Reds have a younger, homegrown, right-handed-hitting outfield option in Heisey who also carries some serious power potential.

In 534 career plate appearances (essentially a full season), Heisey has hit 26 homers with a .465 slugging percentage. This pop has helped make up for a lack of overall hitting polish, as Heisey only has a .254 career batting average and a troubling .316 on-bae percentage.  Heisey's minor league OBP was .365, however, which gives hopes that his batting eye has simply yet to develop on the Major League level.  Heisey is theoretically entering his prime as he begins his age-27 season, but with the Reds going all-in on contending in 2012, the team doesn't have much margin for error in letting a young but flawed player find himself. If Heisey struggles, he'll lose playing time to Ludwick.

A straight platoon between Ludwick and Heisey isn't practical since both are right-handed hitters and (unusually) both are reverse-splits guys.  Ludwick has a .272/.339/.464 career line against righties and a .237/.316/.435 line against lefties, while Heisey has an .885 OPS against right-handers in his short career and only a .548 OPS against southpaws. You would think Heisey's splits would normalize with more at-bats, but for now he looks like the better option against righties, while using Ludwick exclusively against lefties doesn't make sense given his middling career numbers against southpaws.

The wild card in the mix is Frazier, who was rated as the 43rd-best prospect in the game by Baseball America heading into the 2010 season.  Frazier posted a .727 OPS in 121 PAs in his Major League debut last season, largely playing third base in place of the injured Scott Rolen. Frazier has played all over the infield and in left throughout his minor league career, so if he has a big Spring Training, the Reds could give him a crack at the left-field job, as well.  He's another right-handed hitter, but one with traditional splits, so Frazier could see time in left when a southpaw is on the mound.  This all being said, I'm not sure Frazier has any significant fantasy value unless Rolen is injured again, which would make Frazier a nice short-term pickup at the hot corner.  

Fantasy outlook: My inclination would be to draft Heisey since he possesses the most upside. He, Ludwick and even Frazier can all provide some solid power numbers in a standard 5x5 league, but you shouldn't expect much outside of the HRs and maybe the RBI category (though Frazier has shown decent base-stealing ability in the minors). I doubt Ludwick would exceed this modest projection and Frazier is unlikely to get enough playing time to be a factor. With Heisey, however, the potential is there for him to break out and become a legitimate, everyday Major Leaguer.  It may take a couple of months for Cincinnati's LF situation to become clear, so I'd draft Heisey with a late-round pick and then cross your fingers that he emerges by midseason as the de facto starter.

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