Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
19. Darryl Kile
The year before Ryan Ludwick joined the St. Louis Cardinals, they won the World Series. The year after Ryan Ludwick left the Cardinals, they won the World Series. He joined the Cardinals as an afterthought and he left the Cardinals in the second-most consequential deadline trade of the the last quarter-century involving a member of his own family (his brother Eric was part of the trade that brought Mark McGwire to St. Louis), in a three-team deal in which the Cardinals were the least dramatically affected (one can quibble about Ryan Ludwick or Jake Westbrook, but as the Cardinals were the one involved team that did not lose nor acquire eventual Cy Young winner Corey Kluber, the trade was relatively close).
The Cardinals never won a playoff game while Ryan Ludwick was on the team–in his three games in the postseason, he recorded four singles and drew a walk in thirteen plate appearances. But in some ways, guys like Ryan Ludwick, Brendan Ryan, and Joel Piñeiro, players who had moments of glory but ultimately began and ended their Cardinals careers on some of the most forgettable teams of the era, are more important than comparable players on World Series winners. Ryan Ludwick may not have carried the Cardinals to a World Series, but he was one of the big attractions on a team that needed big attractions. The 2004 Cardinals were going to be an upper-nineties win team no matter what player was removed from the roster, but if you removed Ryan Ludwick from the 2008 roster, St. Louis fans had Albert Pujols and a cloud of dust.
Ryan Ludwick was one of two players from Las Vegas’s Durango High School to make it to the Majors, and one of two to crack this list (Tommy Pham was the other). Unlike Pham, Ludwick played some college baseball (at UNLV), and unlike Pham, he was a relatively high draft pick–in the second round, by the Oakland Athletics, and he made his big-league debut at the fairly typical age of 23. He did not debut for Oakland, however, as he had been traded to the Texas Rangers as part of the package sent in return for Carlos Peña. However, his 2002 season was limited by injury (he wasn’t the complete opposite of Tommy Pham) and in 2003, he was sent to the Cleveland Indians. But injuries lingered and in his relatively sparing time in the big leagues, Ludwick was not especially productive. In 2005, Cleveland designated him for assignment, and Ludwick spent the entire 2006 season in the Detroit Tigers minor leagues.
The Cardinals invited Ryan Ludwick, now 28, to their Spring Training in 2007, but he did not make the team, beginning the season instead with the AAA Memphis Redbirds. After impressing in the minors and with injuries taking their toll at the big league level, the Cardinals promoted Ludwick, and for the remainder of a 2007 season marked primarily by its disappointments, Ludwick was a rare bright spot. Despite a lack of true starting position, he found 339 plate appearances and finished the season with a solid .818 OPS. While the Cardinals were certainly not going to assume Ryan Ludwick could keep this up, he had more than earned a shot at the right field position vacated by Juan Encarnacion heading into the next season.
On paper, the 2008 Cardinals were rebuilding–they had traded Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and their free agent pickups were very much of the scrap-heap, trial balloon variety. But the 2008 Cardinals, while not a playoff team, were a surprisingly competitive 86-76. Of course, it’s hard to truly rebuild when you have prime Albert Pujols, and he earned a well-deserved NL Most Valuable Player award (despite the best efforts of voters to make a cataclysmic mistake in voting for Ryan Howard). But the exhilerating surprise of the 2008 season was Ryan Ludwick. He ended up taking 617 plate appearances for the Cardinals and hit 37 home runs, easily a career high to that point. He walked in over ten percent of his plate appearances and cracked 40 doubles. His strikeout rate, as had often been the case, was a bit higher than ideal, but at the end of the day, a 151 wRC+ from a player who a season before had been widely considered a quad-A player was hard to knock. Only three National League players–Pujols, Chipper Jones, and Lance Berkman–were superior by wRC+. Ludwick was an All-Star, a Silver Slugger winner, and a recipient of MVP votes.
Ludwick eventually came back down to Earth, but rather than regressing from pretty good hitter to quad-A hitter from 2007 to 2008, it was more “regress from MVP-caliber hitter to pretty good hitter from 2008 to 2009”. With 22 home runs and a 106 wRC+ in 542 plate appearances, Ludwick was a solid lineup presence for the first Cardinals playoff team in three years, a run which sounds laughably brief but felt interminable at the time for deeply spoiled Cardinals fans. He had been miscast as a worthy second banana to Pujols after the 2008 season, but the 2009 acquisition of Matt Holliday allowed Ludwick to be perceived, more accurately, as a merely good lineup presence and not as an indispensible part of the Cardinals machine.
Ludwick continued to hit well for the Cardinals in 2010–he still wasn’t his 2008 version, but he was actually a bit ahead of the mark set by his 2007 and 2009 seasons. But the team needed a starting pitcher for the home stretch of the season, and with Matt Holliday and Colby Rasmus firmly entrenched in the lineup, it was Ludwick who was expendable, to be replaced by a mishmash of Jon Jay, Allen Craig, Randy Winn, and for some reason, Nick Stavinoha. If given the gift of absolute hindsight, it would’ve been nice for the Cardinals to have been on the side of the trade that wound up with Corey Kluber, but the trade the Cardinals actually did make, despite the Cardinals missing the 2010 postseason, worked out just fine. At 32, Ludwick had peaked, and while Ludwick had a nice little redux of 2008 with the 2012 Cincinnati Reds, it is unlikely that even if the Cardinals hadn’t traded Ryan Ludwick, he would have been re-signed for the 2012 season down the road.
Ryan Ludwick had an extremely hit-or-miss MLB career, with almost all of the hits coming with the Cardinals. But the marriage of Ludwick and the Cardinals was a perfect one for both parties. Ludwick needed another chance at a big-league career and the Cardinals needed someone to distract fans from an otherwise pretty top-heavy roster, and in the end, both parties were able to live up to their end of the bargain.