TORONTO – The path from rebuilding team to contender includes countless steps, most of which occur with little fanfare behind the scenes. And then there are the decisions that catch everyone’s attention.
Late Sunday night, the Blue Jays made one of those moves, agreeing to terms with last year’s National League ERA leader in a bold deal that now ranks among the largest in franchise history. The Blue Jays are in agreement with Hyun-Jin Ryu on a four-year, $80 million deal, Jon Heyman of MLB Network reported first.
Immediately, the deal with the 32-year-old South Korean impacts the Blue Jays on and off the field. He bolsters a rotation that needed short-term help, represents a long-term building block for a franchise looking to contend again and offers the clearest sign yet that the current front office is willing and able to spend big.
Of course, there are questions here too.
A finesse pitcher, Ryu averaged 90.6 m.p.h. with his fastball in 2019 while also relying on a cutter, curve and his preferred out-pitch, a plus change-up. The combination worked in 2019, when he posted an NL-best 2.32 ERA in 182.2 innings while striking out 163.
He joins a rotation featuring two other newcomers, free agent signing Tanner Roark and trade acquisition Chase Anderson. On paper, Matt Shoemaker would be the club’s No. 4 starter while Trent Thornton and Ryan Borucki would be leading candidates for the final spot. That’s a much better rotation than the one that posted a 5.25 ERA in 2019.
“It’s not good enough just to have depth,” GM Ross Atkins said soon after the regular season. “You have to have major-league pieces and guys that can contribute in significant ways.”
Of course, that initial rotation will just be a starting point. A year ago, the Blue Jays used 21 different starters including Ryan Feierabend, Buddy Boshers and Neil Ramirez. The lack of viable starters was apparent at times, with manager Charlie Montoyo once justifying his decision to start Edwin Jackson and his 11.12 ERA by acknowledging “We don’t have anybody else.”
Well, now they do. On paper, the Blue Jays seem poised to begin the season with a triple-A rotation filled with young pitchers ready or nearly ready for the majors. Jacob Waguespack, Anthony Kay, T.J. Zeuch and Sean Reid-Foley all have some big-league experience and can be optioned to and from Buffalo as needed. Plus, there’s Nate Pearson, arguably the game’s top pitching prospect, who should be ready for major-league hitters at some point this season.
Ryu’s presence should help ensure that the days of ‘an opener and a guy’ are over.
Even so, the Blue Jays can’t assume they’re getting 200 innings per season from Ryu, who has missed considerable time over the years. Shoulder surgery cost him the entire 2015 season and the first half of 2016. After just one start back, elbow tendonitis sidelined him until 2017. Hip and foot injuries impacted him that year, but only briefly. Then, in 2018, he missed 90 games with a left groin strain.
Those injuries could resurface, so a fair over/under for total innings pitched in Toronto may be 500 rather than 800. Regardless, that risk is priced into his contract to some extent as Ryu signed for a lower average annual value than fellow free agents Gerrit Cole ($36 million), Stephen Strasburg ($35) million and Zack Wheeler ($23.6 million). Adding to Ryu’s appeal, he won’t cost the Blue Jays a draft pick since he accepted Los Angeles’ qualifying offer a year ago.
Clearly, there’s risk here — it’s the largest free agent pitching deal in franchise history — but the Blue Jays are positioned to absorb it at a time that they have considerable financial flexibility. Beyond 2021, the team’s only commitments are Roark, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Randal Grichuk. It won’t be until the final year of Ryu’s contract that the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio are arbitration-eligible.
Even after completing this deal with Ryu and agent Scott Boras, the Blue Jays should have room to add and retain more impact players in the coming seasons. According to Roster Resource, Toronto’s projected 2020 payroll sits at $106 million — nowhere near the luxury tax threshold of $208 million.
Ryu’s agreement represents the largest Blue Jays deal of any kind since club president and CEO Mark Shapiro took over following the 2015 season. In the intervening years, Shapiro often said the Blue Jays would have the means to spend on major free agents at the right time, but that was often met with skepticism from the fan base. Now, the Ryu deal speaks for itself.
Eventually, the Blue Jays hope he’ll be pitching them back to contention. If everything breaks right, that could even happen as soon as next season. In the perhaps more likely event that 2020 represents a step towards respectability, Ryu’s greatest impact may be felt in 2021 and beyond.