TORONTO — The actual return on the Toronto Blue Jays’ $80 million investment in Hyun Jin Ryu isn’t going to look overly pretty when all is said and done, but the signing was an absolutely vital step in helping this club return to contention.
Now that the 35-year-old lefty’s 2022 season is over as he gets set to undergo elbow surgery in the near future, the contract GM Ross Atkins handed Ryu in December of 2019 showed not only the fan base but agents and players around the game that the Jays were serious about spending money to surround a dynamic homegrown core with impact veteran talent.
Simply put, without striking the Ryu salvo who knows how things look in subsequent off-seasons. Luring Ryu was the first piece of the puzzle, even if it may be far from the most important piece.
But there’s also no arguing Ryu’s first season with the Jays, spent in Buffalo during a pandemic, was the peak, and the lefty hasn’t enjoyed much success over the past calendar year.
In early August last year, Ryu was cruising with a 3.22 ERA and it looked like he was building off his Cy Young nomination from 2020. But the wheels quickly came off and he finished with a 7.43 ERA over his final 10 starts and the Jays fell one game short of the playoffs.
It didn’t look much better to begin this season, as Ryu allowed 11 earned runs over his first two starts, before landing on the injured list with a bout of forearm soreness.
That ominously morphed into elbow pain when he returned, and then more forearm inflammation sent him back to the 15-day IL earlier this month.
Combine all that and it made Tuesday’s news that Ryu has UCL damage and will be going under the knife not overly shocking.
“He’s extremely disappointed,” Atkins said Tuesday afternoon. “He, I think, just got to the point where he said I just want to compete as quick as humanly possibly and felt like this was the best thing to do that.”
The injury didn’t happen overnight. It was simply wear and tear on Ryu’s elbow.
“It’s just chronic changes over time,” Atkins said. “He would feel it over the course of an outing. It would tighten up after four innings or so. That also points to the MRI read, that it is chronic in nature. There’s not an acute injury but over time that stretching and pulling makes the tightness occur and loss of dexterity or feel to execute his pitches or really finish them.”
There are currently two timelines that the Jays are working with, but they won’t know for sure until Dr. Neal ElAttrache investigates.
Ryu might need a full Tommy John surgery, which would come with the typical 12-15 month timeline for recovery, or it might be a partial revision, sidelining him for a 9-12 month window.
A traditional TJ could potentially end Ryu’s tenure with the Jays if he had any setbacks, while the partial route could see Ryu return in the second half of 2023.
“That would be a great outcome, in either form, to have him pitching at some point next year,” Atkins said.
If the former occurs and he can’t make it back at all, Ryu’s final numbers in a Jays uniform will leave a lot to be desired.
Despite finishing with a 2.69 ERA in the shortened 2020 season and being one of the reasons the Jays made an expanded postseason, Ryu’s 4.07 ERA across 263 innings isn’t exactly the type of production you’d hope for in exchange for a cool $20 million per season.
Now, the final $20 million may be a sunk cost.
But the true value of the Ryu contract was more about presence and a change in perception.
“I actually see that pandemic year as him being integral to turning us around as a team and he was a stabilizer for us,” Atkins noted.
No matter how you feel about the Ryu contract overall or his performance over the last season or so, his injury without a doubt leaves less rotation depth on hand and has likely altered Atkins’ strategy heading into the Aug. 2 trade deadline.
Rotation depth is absolutely necessary, and the Jays are now one injury away from dipping into the Thomas Hatch/Bowden Francis/Anthony Kay bucket at Triple-A.
That’s not a bucket a World Series contender wants to be in.
Even with Ross Stripling pitching well at the back end of the rotation, there could be an appetite to add a starter and move the veteran righty back into more of a fluid swingman role later this summer.
There’s also a chance Nate Pearson plays a role at some point, but the Jays are still eyeing a bulk role rather than building him up as a traditional starter.
Along with lefty bats and power arms for the back of the bullpen, expect to now hear about the Jays scouring the starting pitching market, as well.
“We could think of it creatively and then obviously we have to consider deadline opportunities and trade acquisitions that can bolster our depth there,” Atkins said.