DUNEDIN, Fla. – The paparazzi-esque scene surrounding Hyun-Jin Ryu’s every move felt a little Hollywood, interest in the ace left-hander drawing a media mob comparable in size to the one across the state documenting the Houston Astros’ lamely scripted attempt at penance.
Unlike the tainted 2017 World Series champions, Ryu did nothing wrong, his star power back in his native South Korea alone enough to draw the type of horde that typically descends upon a scandal. That gave the Toronto Blue Jays’ first official workout for pitchers and catchers a bit of a celebrity vibe, which is much better than the feeling from a day earlier.
“It’s exciting,” pitching coach Pete Walker, headed into his ninth season on the big-league staff and a veteran of four camps with the club as a player, said of the sudden spike in attention. “Obviously we got some new pitchers, and the staff has had a little bit of an upgrade, for sure. It adds to the excitement for the players here. It’s always good to see.”
Better for the Blue Jays to see was Ryu letting it rip on the mound during a 33-pitch side session, and then demonstrating a savvy self-awareness of both his role on the club and the demands in and around that.
No longer pitching behind the dynamic duo of Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, Ryu needs to be the dude in a Blue Jays rotation that had been improved but lacked high-end impact until his $80-million, four-year deal. The 32-year-old finished second in National League Cy Young Award voting last year after pitching to a 2.32 ERA and 1.007 WHIP over 182.2 innings, and he’ll be counted on to perform similarly now that he’ll be at the head of the staff.
“I’m not trying to put too much thought into that,” he said through interpreter Bryan Lee. “Of course it’s nice to be titled as an ace, but to be honest, I’m just another player. We win games by having all the players put in their effort. At the same time, I do realize the expectation and the weight that comes with this kind of contract and I know exactly what the Blue Jays want from me. So I’m definitely going to try to talk to the younger players because we have a very young core and if I can, I’d like to be their mentor and really work things as a team.”
Ryu, of course, knows better than to force it, saying all the right things about learning a new organization, new catchers and new teammates. He’s had past success preparing for seasons gradually and without forcing things, ensuring his body “is ready to maintain certain types of workloads,” and he plans to repeat those things this year as well.
“I had a good talk with Pete and the organization and they’re more than willing to help me do the same things that helped me be successful over the past couple of years,” Ryu added. “Right now I’m just trying to carry that good momentum and feel into the next season.”
That’s pro stuff, and part of the value for the Blue Jays in the contract.
Ryu’s injury history offers pause – a torn labrum in his left shoulder wiped out all but one start from his 2015 and ’16 seasons – but when healthy, he’s performed and that made him coveted.
For what’s a stabilized but still largely transitionary Blue Jays rotation, there are obvious tangible benefits to having him at the front every fifth day, as well more subtle intangibles that impact the wider roster.
“You get starters who are consistently taking the ball and going deep into games, you put everyone in a better position,” said Walker. “Your defence thrives off that kind of guy and it gives you a really good feeling that you’re going to win a ballgame that day. Hopefully it carries over with the other guys.”
The other guys include fellow free-agent add Tanner Roark, who has yet to arrive in camp for personal reasons, Chase Anderson, Matt Shoemaker and one of incumbents Trent Thornton and Ryan Borucki, plus Japanese newcomer Shun Yamaguchi.
Thornton was the only Blue Jays starter to go wire-to-wire last year, something that may give him an early edge, but Yamaguchi, who’s slated to throw a side Friday, can quickly erase that if it looks like his dominance in Japan will translate. Borucki, meanwhile, was considered a future cornerstone last spring before elbow issues derailed his year, and will get his looks, too.
“What I love about this spring so far is that the competition for the fifth spot is going to be pretty good, and that’s only going to make us better,” said manager Charlie Montoyo. “I’m excited about seeing the kids compete for those spots. Even for the bullpen, that’s going to be exciting.”
Sure, although having more things settled is preferable, because usually that means a team is more established. The Blue Jays are still working toward that, both in the rotation and the wider roster as a whole, with Ryu and the big spotlight on him set as an integral part of the foundation.