Hyun-Jin Ryu would be unusually risky bet for Blue Jays

If there’s one thing the Toronto Blue Jays’ front office has been known for in recent seasons it’s a minimal appetite for risk.

The current brain trust pursued only minor upgrades at the 2016 trade deadline for a playoff-bound club, generally shies away from the free agent market, and has prioritized floor over ceiling in many of its prospect acquisitions. Most MLB front offices are measure-twice-cut-once types, but the Mark Shapiro-Ross Atkins duo tends to measure at least three or four times.

You could argue that’s a strength of this regime, even if it hasn’t endeared them to fans. Outside of the Kendrys Morales deal, the Blue Jays have signed very few inadvisable contracts, rebuilt their farm systems and created flexibility to make a competitive push in the near future. It’s certainly possible that in a couple of years the caution this franchise has exercised lately will look prudent.

However, that’ll only be true if they get the next part right. Building up is far harder than tearing down, and while no one is going to be calling Ross Atkins “Riverboat Ross” any time soon, the time to make a few gambles is upon us. Apparently the Blue Jays realize this because instead of signing Tanner Roark and attempting to clone him a couple times, it looks like they’re shooting a little higher.

Ryu is coming off an outstanding 2019 where he was the Cy Young runner-up in the National League and gave the Los Angeles Dodgers 182.2 innings with a league-best 2.32 ERA — a performance that was worth 4.8 WAR even by FanGraphs FIP-based model. He was unquestionably a front-of-the-rotation stud and one of the best pitchers in the game.

Based on that information alone, you’d think Ryu would be up for the kind of massive payday liable to put him out of the Blue Jays’ snack bracket. While he’s undoubtedly going to cash in, he won’t be breaking any records, though, as there’s a lot more to his free agent case than an elite platform year.

For starters, there’s his age. Ryu turns 33 just before the 2020 season opens, which makes him a little long in the tooth to get a top-notch payday. He also comes equipped with an exceedingly long and worrying injury history.

Hyun-Jin Ryu would give the Blue Jays a front-of-the-rotation presence. (Will Newton/Getty Images)
Hyun-Jin Ryu would give the Blue Jays a front-of-the-rotation presence. (Will Newton/Getty Images)

The southpaw missed all of 2015 with a shoulder injury, was limited to a single start in 2016 due to a combination of rehab from shoulder surgery and a left elbow injury that also required surgery. He managed just 126.2 innings the next year and that fell to 82.2 in 2018 as a groin injury put him out of commission between May 2 and Aug. 15. Even last season he briefly hit the IL with a neck issue. When Ryu is available he’s an excellent starter, but his availability is an open question.

That makes him an odd fit for the Blue Jays considering Atkins has stated the Blue Jays need starting pitching they “can trust”, and overtly mentioned that durability is an especially attractive quality to his team. Just last Wednesday, he specified athleticism as a particular quality he prizes in starters.

“I think starting pitchers’ athleticism is an underrated tool and asset,” he said when he joined the Toronto BBWAA chapter meeting. “That’s why I think starting pitchers are durable.”

Considering Ryu is an older finesse pitcher listed at 6-foot-3, 255 pounds, it seems unfair to put athleticism at the top of his desirable qualities.

Beyond concerns about Ryu breaking down physically, there are questions about his ability to stay effective in the years to come. Over last last two seasons, the Korean star has counted on his changeup to keep hitters off balance and limit them to soft contact.

Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant
Via Baseball Savant

That’s an appealing profile, but considering how unimpressive Ryu’s fastball is, it’s worth wondering if his effectiveness could quickly erode if he loses a couple of ticks. Outside of an anomalous 2018 he’s also not a huge strikeout guy either, and any style that involves allowing plenty of balls in play has its risks, especially in the American League East.

Now, all of that is an expression of the risks that surround Ryu, not an indictment of his ability or a suggestion the Blue Jays shouldn’t sign him. The southpaw is immensely talented. His changeup is one of the deadliest weapons in the game, his curveball is a bat-misser, and his fastball works well off his other pitches, and he doesn’t walk anybody. When he’s on, he’s virtually untouchable, and for what it’s worth he’s an absolute pleasure to watch. He’s even a solid fielder and virtually impossible to run off. The fact he’s allowed just six stolen bases in 740.1 MLB innings is absolutely ridiculous.

The argument for signing Ryu is a strong one, he just doesn’t seem like the kind of guy the Blue Jays would normally go after. Because the veteran’s free agent deal will price in the heavy dose of risk that surrounds him, there’s a chance it winds up as an enormous bargain. It could also be an unmitigated disaster.

A gamble like that seems uncharacteristic for these Blue Jays, but as this front office transitions from selling off parts to doing some buying, it’s possible their philosophy is shifting.

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