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Blue Jays Make a Risky Play for AL East Relevance with Hyun-Jin Ryu Signing

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterDecember 30, 2019

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 06: Hyun-Jin Ryu #99 of the Los Angeles Dodgers pitches against the Washington Nationals in game three of the National League Division Series at Nationals Park on October 6, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)
Will Newton/Getty Images

The Toronto Blue Jays are basically hoping that Hyun-Jin Ryu will be their Jon Lester.

For the moment, the ace left-hander is the biggest prize of the Blue Jays' offseason haul. His four-year, $80 million deal was first reported by MLB Network's Jon Heyman on Dec. 22 and finalized five days later.

Toronto Blue Jays @BlueJays

OFFICIAL: We’ve signed LHP Hyun-Jin Ryu to a 4-year contract. Ryu led the Majors with a 2.32 ERA in 2019. Welcome to our family, @HyunJinRyu99! https://t.co/dww0Ld6Ybk

In Ryu's introductory press conference on Friday, it was Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro who uttered the magic words, per Alexis Brudnicki of MLB.com: "This is the next step in what we feel is a plan to build a sustainable championship team."

Hence the obligatory comparison to Lester.

When the Chicago Cubs signed Lester to a six-year, $155 million contract in December 2014, they were technically far away from contention after winning only 73 games the previous season. However, combining his ability and experience with their strong base of young talent had the potential to work wonders. Spoiler alert: It did.

Though the Blue Jays are fresh off a 95-loss campaign in 2019, they at least succeeded in planting the seeds—namely Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio—for an American League powerhouse. That makes them well-suited to play the role of the Cubs.

All Ryu, 32, has to do is play the Lester role. For that, much will depend on him defying the odds on his durability and his pitching style.

Sam Gangwer/Associated Press

On the surface, a multiyear contract at $20 million a pop is more than fair for a pitcher with Ryu's credentials.

He was consistently an above-average pitcher in his six years with the Los Angeles Dodgers, and he's coming to Toronto off a career year. In addition to having an MLB-best 2.32 ERA among qualified starters, he also led with a microscopic rate of 1.18 walks per nine innings.

On a less bright side, even words such as "alarming" and "concerning" don't do Ryu's injury history justice. Shoulder and elbow injuries limited him to one start between 2015 and 2016. He's missed additional time with hip, foot, groin and neck injuries over the last three seasons.

Even if Ryu were a younger man, a track record such as this would raise concerns about further injuries to come. He is, of course, not a younger man. He'll be 33 by the time Opening Day for the 2020 season rolls around. Between his age and collections of aches, pains and owies together, the Blue Jays have ample excuse to cross their fingers and keep 'em crossed.

In the event Ryu does stay healthy, there's a chance that the Blue Jays will enjoy a legit No. 1 starter at the top of their rotation over the next four years.

His 90.6 mph fastball hardly stands out next to the many mid- and high-90s heaters around MLB today, but anyone who watches him closely will get a sense of why that's no big deal. His changeup is his weapon, and he throws it liberally and is very good at using it in tandem with his heat:

Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja

Hyun-Jin Ryu, 3 Pitch K vs Baez, Overlay (89mph Two Seamer and 2 80mph Changeups). 🎯🎯🎯 https://t.co/5MBwu9aYfn

Ultimately, command isn't Ryu's only elite skill. He's also proved himself as a master contact manager. To wit, his 85.3 mph average exit velocity ranked second to that of only Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks among pitchers who had at least 500 balls put in play in 2019.

Yet there is some volatility baked into Ryu's pitching style.

His typically unspectacular strikeout rates create a small margin for error. And as evidenced by how he outperformed his expected batting average and expected slugging percentage in 2019, even his best season wasn't quite as good as it appeared. That started to become more apparent in the second half, in which his ERA nearly doubled from 1.73 to 3.18.

It helped Ryu that the Dodgers had three above-average framers behind the plate as well as the National League's most efficient defense. Further, Dodger Stadium generally isn't a fun place for hitters, and that was especially true for right-handed hitters in 2019.

By contrast, the Blue Jays ranked 19th in defensive efficiency in 2019 and Rogers Centre is at best (for pitchers, that is) neutral to right-handed hitters. So thanks to Danny Jansen's framing expertise, only Ryu's catching advantage figures to carry over from Los Angeles to Toronto. And that may only last as long as the automated strike zone stays out of major league parks.

Meanwhile, the rest of the AL East won't clear the way for the Blue Jays in 2020.

Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

The New York Yankees have topped 100 wins in back-to-back seasons, and Gerrit Cole's arrival could very well make it three straight. The Tampa Bay Rays still look like a contender after winning 96 games in 2019. Assuming they don't trade 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts, the Boston Red Sox should bounce back from a disappointing 84-win turn.

To their credit, the Blue Jays have added one key hitter (Travis Shaw) and more pitchers (Tanner Roark, Chase Anderson and Shun Yamaguchi) than just Ryu. They're also not done harvesting from their farm system. Specifically, live-armed righty Nate Pearson will be in Toronto soon.

Even still, the leap from pretender to contender is one the Blue Jays will be challenged to make in 2020. They stand a better chance of making it in 2021, and even that's assuming all of Ryu's red flags aren't looming even larger.

This is not to suggest the Blue Jays have made a critical error. They indeed needed a veteran top-of-the-rotation starter. And given how this winter's market has been trending, they didn't go over market value in signing Ryu for $80 million. Plus, there would seem to be room in their books for more big contracts.

But as potential franchise saviors go, this one is probably going to need some help.

               

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Baseball Prospectus. Payroll data courtesy of Roster Resource.

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