The Pirates and Cardinals right fielders this weekend traveled long roads before achieving major league success.
As I watched the Cardinals take on the Pirates in Pittsburgh this weekend, I couldn’t help but think about the parallels between the right fielders of each club, Pittsburgh’s Garrett Jones and St. Louis’ Ryan Ludwick. Each traveled a long, hard road after having been drafted in 1999 before finally sticking in the majors at the age of 28 and excelling once finally there for good.
Cardinals fans probably know the basics of Ludwick’s story by now, but for completeness, here is it again.
Ludwick was originally signed as the second-round selection of the Oakland A’s in 1999. He moved to Texas in a 2002 trade and that year, he made his big-league debut for the Rangers before his season ended with a hip fracture.
In July of 2003, after playing most of the season in Triple-A, Ludwick joined the Cleveland Indians in another trade. Continuing to spend most of the time in the minors, his 162 major league at-bats that season would be his career high before joining St. Louis.
The right-handed hitter missed considerable time in 2004 and 2005 due to knee, shoulder and wrist woes, especially struggling the latter year after finally making the Indians out of Spring Training. He was removed from the 40-man roster, not retained by the Indians, then spent 2006 in Triple-A for Detroit, but did not get called up. Again a free agent, Ludwick signed a minor league deal with the Cardinals.
After just 29 games at Triple-A Memphis in 2007, at the age of 28, Ludwick was promoted to St. Louis, where he played in 120 Major League games, hitting .267/.339/.479 with 14 home runs and 52 RBI. After having spent the majority of each of the previous six years in Triple-A, the minor league phase of his career finally ended at 736 games played .
Coming into 2008, Ludwick was not penciled in as a starter, but by the end of the season was an All-Star and Silver Slugger Award winner, with 37 home runs, 113 RBI and a .299 average. His .591 slugging percentage was second best in the National League.
Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1999’s 14th round, Jones suffered a broken jaw in 2001 and was released by the organization early in the 2002 season. He signed with Minnesota where he was initially assigned to Quad Cities, then a Twins affiliate.
After a slow climb through the system, Jones finally made his MLB debut in May 2007, a month before his 26th birthday. He would go down and come back up again twice more that season, appearing in his first 31 career MLB games.
During the spring of 2008, Jones was outrighted off the Twins’ 40-man roster. After spending the entire season in Triple-A without a return to the roster or the Twin Cities, he became a minor league free agent that fall.
Jones signed a minor league contract that included a major league spring training invitation with the Pirates for 2009. After not making the big club, he reported to Triple-A for the fifth consecutive season. Hitting .307 with 18 doubles, 12 home runs, 48 RBI and 14 stolen bases at the time, Jones received the call to Pittsburgh last June 30. He was 28 years old, long past having been considered a “prospect.”
Despite not playing his first game with Pirates until July 1, Jones acted like he should have been there all along. He led all Major League rookies last season in home runs and slugging percentage (.567). Jones ranked second among National League rookies in on-base percentage (.372), third in batting, fifth in total bases (178) and in the top ten in RBI, doubles, steals and runs scored.
Compared to all MLB players, Jones tied for fifth in home runs hit from July 1 through the end of the season, trailing only Prince Fielder (26), Ryan Howard (25), Derrek Lee (24) and Mark Reynolds (23). Jones became the fastest player in Pirates history to reach 10 home runs in a season (in his first 19 games). His 21 home runs were the most by a left-handed hitting rookie in club history.
Jones’ minor league career has likely ended, or at least suspended indefinitely, at 1038 games.
Both Ludwick and Jones offer examples of perseverance, required by many to attain and hold onto their ultimate goal.