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Reds need LF Ryan Ludwick back in form a year after his severe shoulder injury

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GOODYEAR, Ariz. - Thirty-eight games, two home runs. Even when Ryan Ludwick was back in the lineup, his power was still missing.

And so was a big part of the Cincinnati Reds' offence.

The Reds got very little out of their left fielders last season after Ludwick tore up his right shoulder on opening day. They were near the bottom of the league in most categories at the position, which is the one place they need to fix this time around.

Getting Ludwick back to form is a priority.

"I think it was a pretty noticeable difference from 2012 and 2013, having a guy who can hit in the middle of your order and have some consistent run production," manager Bryan Price said on Wednesday before the first full-squad workout.

Reds left fielders combined for a .250 batting average that ranked 11th in the National League, according to STATS LLC. Their .374 slugging percentage ranked 10th. They hit only 14 homers (10th), drove in 65 runs (ninth) and scored 70 runs, which ranked second-last in the NL.

And all Ludwick could do was get his shoulder healthy enough to play, then give it whatever he had for the final six weeks.

"You come back and you play with what you've got," said Ludwick, who tore the labrum and tissue in the shoulder. "I knew what to expect. I knew my power wasn't what it was going to be with time.

"It's good now to miss-hit balls out of the yard."

The 35-year-old outfielder was a key to the Reds' NL Central title in 2012, steadying the offence after Joey Votto tore cartilage in his knee and was limited in the second half of the season. Ludwick hurt his right shoulder while sliding into third base on opening day last season and didn't return until mid-August.

The shoulder was still bothering him when he got back on the field. The former cleanup hitter managed only two homers and 12 RBIs while batting .240. He needed occasional days off to rest the shoulder.

He wasn't able to get back into his full weight-training regimen until after the season. His strength has returned. He has to avoid putting his shoulder in an awkward position, such as stretching back for a ball over his head.

"I feel so good," he said, after hitting line drives during batting practice on Wednesday. "Don't get me wrong: If I put my shoulder in the wrong position, it still feels a little cranky."

Ludwick is particularly important to a lineup that relies on Votto and Jay Bruce, who bat left-handed. Former manager Dusty Baker, fired after last season, liked to bat Ludwick or second baseman Brandon Phillips between Votto and Bruce so the lineup wasn't as susceptible to a left-handed reliever late in the game.

Price is planning to bat Bruce fourth against right-handed starters and Ludwick fourth against left-handers.

"I think Jay is that prototype No. 4 hitter and he's continuing to get better," Price said.

Bruce hit 30 homers and drove in a career-high 109 runs last season, batting fifth most of the time. After Ludwick got hurt, Phillips moved from the No. 2 spot to cleanup and drove in a career-high 103 runs.

The Reds' cleanup hitters ranked 11th in slugging percentage last season and seventh in homers, but drove in 126 runs, second to Colorado's 128 for the league lead, according to STATS.

The Reds scored 698 runs last season, third-most in the NL behind Colorado and St. Louis. If Ludwick is back in form, the middle of the lineup can be even better.

"I think we saw what we were missing when he was out," Price said. "There just wasn't enough time in his rehab to ever get back into midseason form. And he feels great. He hasn't felt this great in a long time."

NOTES: Price plans to keep Votto in the third spot in the order. Most days, the order would be Billy Hamilton, Phillips, Votto, Bruce, Ludwick, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco and Zack Cozart. ... OF Roger Bernadina, who agreed to a minor league deal, was the only player who missed the workout. He had travel problems but was expected on Thursday. ... INF Henry Rodriguez was sent outright to the minors. He was designated for assignment last week.

___

Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay

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