Blue Jays’ Springer praises former teammate Hyun Jin Ryu: ‘He really led the way’

Toronto Blue Jays George Springer throws during Spring Training action in Dunedin, Fla. on Thursday, February 22, 2024. (Frank Gunn/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — More important than what Hyun Jin Ryu did on the field for the Toronto Blue Jays over the duration of his $80-million, four-year contract signed Dec. 27, 2019, is what he did for the club’s perception within the industry.

Remember that the winter before that deal, his agent, Scott Boras, said the organization was suffering from a “Blue Flu” caused by “not bringing attractive players that their fans find interesting to their market.” During the 95-loss mess that preceded Ryu’s arrival, “an opener and a guy” took regular turns in the rotation, and while a talented young core had begun to emerge, the veteran lefty was taking a leap of faith on vision becoming reality.

As a result of that bet, Blue Jays manager John Schneider believes, “he was one of those guys that transitioned us to where we are now, to where we are in probably the best division or one of the best divisions in baseball and we’re a team that’s competing for the post-season every single year and wanting to go deep.”

Also pivotal in that transition, of course, is George Springer, whose $150-million, six-year contract remains the richest in franchise history, and was the first in a string of major deals that followed Ryu’s contract. The Blue Jays traded for José Berríos in the summer of 2021 and then extended him for $131 million over seven years later that fall, when they also signed Kevin Gausman for $110 million over five years. Other notable free-agent deals since include Chris Bassitt getting $63 million for three years and Yusei Kikuchi signing for $36 million over three years, each in the service of the competitive window Ryu symbolically opened.

“Any time you see a guy like that go anywhere, you know that that organization is invested and wants to surround the guys they have in that locker room with guys like him,” Springer said Thursday, after collecting a pair of hits during the day’s live batting practice sessions. “For him to do it, he’s such an unbelievable human being, it was an honour to get to know him, to play with him. I’m sad he’s gone but to have a guy like that here, he really led the way.”

On the mound, that was more the case in 2020 and ’21 than it was during the past two seasons, when Tommy John surgery limited him to 17 starts and 79 innings and helped prompt Ryu’s return home to the Hanwha Eagles of the Korean Baseball Organization.

And while his presence will be missed — Schneider recalls “him cruising around the clubhouse with his humongous calves and Starbucks, just running his day like that,” and Bassitt calls him “just a fun, fun guy to be around” — Springer is among those left to push the project past the finish line.

A year ago, when he transitioned from centre field to right, he played in 154 games, the second highest total of his career, but his OPS of .732 was easily the lowest of his 10 big-league seasons. Schneider said that during the off-season, he joked with Springer about “running him into the ground at times and taking blame for that,” but doesn’t feel there are glaring issues to explain the dip in production.

Springer’s exit velocity was down a tick from his all-star 2022, when he had an OPS of .814, and his predictive numbers showed little year-to-year variance. That’s why Schneider dismissed the down numbers as “kind of a weird year for him, nothing crazy in terms of the way he was swinging the bat, kind of some bad luck there.”

How much of a resurgence the Blue Jays can expect from the now 34-year-old is an important question to be answered, especially with Schneider saying that he plans to keep Springer in the leadoff spot.

Like many of his teammates, he did some reflection after the season about what went wrong during that difficult 2023 both individually and collectively and insisted that, “I learned a lot just about myself, what I could be better at, how I can help guys.”

“It’s stuff that’s obviously going to stay in there,” Springer added, nodding to the clubhouse. “But I think as we go on, I think that guys have learned that we learn together, and to build off that, to understand that experience, even if it is not the way that we would want it to end, you still learn from it and you grow.”

Springer, of course, has been through the slow build once before with the Houston Astros, building from young team on the rise to playoff threat to consistent World Series contender.

There, “everybody held everybody to a certain standard and that’s what happens here,” he said. “I think guys have understood that there’s a certain brand that needs to be played here. This is a tough division, a tough league and you cannot take off a pitch, a play, an at-bat. Guys now have four or five or six years of experience together and expect the best out of one another. And don’t be afraid to say something if you see it. But there is a standard that’s been set.”

Ryu helped set that standard, first by turning the page on that dreadful 2019 during that strange COVID-shortened season of 2020, which ended with an unexpected berth in the expanded playoffs, and then again during the one-game short heartbreak of 2021.

“Having that type of player come into this organization and really show the fan base and show everyone, other players what we’re all about now was huge,” said Schneider. “And then the impact he had with the pitchers, being a veteran guy that’s done it and had a lot of success, whether it be overseas or whether it be in L.A. and bringing his experiences here, watching him communicate with (Danny Jansen) and (Alejandro Kirk) and forming relationships with those guys, was awesome. And we wish him the best, obviously.”

For good reason, as Ryu delivered for the Blue Jays on the mound, and in ways that go well beyond the numbers, too.

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