TORONTO — You’re forgiven if you forgot.
A lot has happened away from the field since the Toronto Blue Jays committed $80 million bucks over four years to Hyun-Jin Ryu to be the new staff ace way back in December, going above and beyond what many expected in order to secure the Korean lefty’s services.
On Monday, Ryu took to the Rogers Centre mound for the first time in a Blue Jays uniform, throwing 59 pitches in a simulated game that was spiced up by a “Team Bo vs. Team Grich” format and some artificial crowd noise, which many expect to be the new normal when Major League Baseball attempts to officially return to play in less than two weeks.
“Definitely feels new,” Ryu said Monday evening. “I feel like I’m starting off with a new slate playing for the Blue Jays. This is definitely going to be a new beginning.”
While Ryu hasn’t had a chance to give the Jays any return on their significant investment just yet, his veteran presence has already become valuable to pitching coach Pete Walker.
“The guys love him, he's very social,” Walker said of Ryu, who will be on the mound on opening day July 24 in St. Petersburg, Fla., against the Tampa Bay Rays. “He has used his experience and helped some of the younger guys, I've heard him in some conversations with them. So they're not afraid to pick his brain, even with the language barrier, which is awesome. He's always on time, he's got a plan every day. Like I said, he's a professional. His stuff has been great, too. I've seen him on TV, I've watched video and then seeing him in person, in spring training, and where he is now, he's in a really good place, which excites us.”
When it comes to the rotation the Jays will be able to put together this summer, a lot has changed in three years.
In the summer of 2017, while the Jays were spending the 28th overall pick in the draft on some junior college right-hander named Nate Pearson, names like Mike Bolsinger, Cesar Valdez, Chris Rowley, Mat Latos and Nick Tepesch were making starts at the big-league level.
Now, a rotation fronted by Ryu, a crafty lefty, followed by Pearson, a hard-throwing righty, and then couple of mid-rotation veterans in Matt Shoemaker and Tanner Roark is close to becoming a reality.
That foursome, health permitting, could be rolled out during the first week of August once Pearson is kept off the roster long enough to gain that extra year of team control and keep the 6-foot-6, 245-pounder in Toronto at least through the 2026 season.
It’s not yet one of the top rotations in baseball but, unlike previous years, it’s far from one of the worst, offering a nice mix of impact, upside and the ability to eat innings.
There's also some intriguing depth in the form of Trent Thornton, Anthony Kay, Ryan Borucki and Chase Anderson, who is now sidelined with an oblique injury.
For that plan to work, Ryu will have to stay healthy.
That’s always the question.
You can’t argue the results when he’s been able to pitch, as the 33-year-old is sporting a sparkling 2.98 career ERA across 125 starts.
Ryu’s resume, however, is littered with health issues — he’s landed on the IL nine different times in six years with shoulder (twice), hip (twice), groin (twice), elbow, foot and neck injuries — leaving a whole lot of risk involved with a four-year commitment.
Since arriving in the majors with the Dodgers in 2013, Ryu has thrown more than 150 innings just three times.
He threw 192 in his rookie year, followed by 152 in 2014.
From 2015 through 2018, however, Ryu was only able to make 40 starts total, before throwing 182.2 innings and winning 14 games last season, which led to agent Scott Boras securing much more than anyone initially expected in what became a heated free-agent market on the starting pitching side.
This year, Ryu is in line for 12 starts in the coronavirus-shortened 60-game regular season, but Walker said they could find an extra turn or two for their ace with some off-days mixed in.
Ryu should be able to carry close to full workload on opening day, but right now he’s still fine-tuning the repertoire.
“His stuff, his velocity, his off-speed stuff has been really good,” Walker said. “Now, it's just a matter of competing a little bit, getting back out there facing hitters and maybe increase that pitch count a little bit. He's in a good place, there's not really one pitch he's struggling with right now. They all seem to be working fine. It's continuing to build, it's continuing to pitch against hitters and get that competitive flow going.
“I know the cutter is something he's trying to fine-tune right now. I think his changeup has been very good, his curveball has been really good.”
The Ryu family welcomed their first child into the world in May, leaving the pitcher wondering if he should exercise his ability to opt out this summer.
It was only a brief consideration.
“Honestly, just like any other player, the safety of my family was a priority and that thought did ponder me a one point, but it was never to the point where I actually wanted to opt out,” Ryu said. “I think we’ve been doing a great job of being cautious as a team. I think if we maintain this, not just myself but the entire team and every staff member that’s part of this organization, I feel like we can get through this so that’s the reason I didn’t opt out.”
If the Jays get approval from the federal government to play their 30 home games in Toronto this summer — a decision that could be made this week — Ryu may be separated from his family until at least Sept. 27, depending on what the quarantine bubble conditions negotiated with health authorities look like.
It’s a situation he hopes doesn’t come to fruition, but also something he accepts.
“Just like any other player in this organization, it’s going to be extremely tough for me to not be able to see my family, potentially, but my understanding is that it’s still up in the air,” Ryu said. “I believe the organization and the Canadian government are having that discussion at this moment. Depending on how it goes, things will definitely affect me, but as a player my job is to go out there and perform and be ready for opening day. I’m hopeful, but at the same time I do realize that it’s a possibility.”