The Blue Jays need to spend money on free agent pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu

Dec 10 2019, 12:39 pm

Day one of MLB’s Winter Meetings kicked off in a big way, as Stephen Strasburg signed a monster $245 million contract with the Washington Nationals. He was one of the biggest names to come off the free agent board, but there’s another name in the background who should be the Blue Jays’ primary target.

Hyun Jin-Ryu.

Over the last week, multiple reports have confirmed the Blue Jays’ interest in the 32-year-old left-handed starter. For teams like the Blue Jays who are priced out of the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes, Ryu is an attractive free agent pitcher for all kinds of reasons.

With every passing day, it seems like yet another starting pitcher slips through the Blue Jays’ fingers. Michael Pineda and Jordan Lyles were the latest starters to sign deals outside of Toronto.

A free agent pool rich with starting pitchers is drying up by the day, with the Blue Jays having made no progress to sign any of them.

Ryu is an ideal target for the Blue Jays. The South Korean pitcher is coming off a career year with the Los Angeles Dodgers where he led the National League in ERA, ERA+ and BB/9. The left-hander also set career highs in strikeouts, WHIP and he placed second in National League Cy Young voting.

Stat Value Ranking (NL)
ERA 2.32 1st
ERA+ 179 1st
BB/9 1.2 1st
BB% 3.3 1st

The funny thing is that conventional numbers dictate that Ryu should have gotten lit up by NL hitters the last two years, but remarkably, he hasn’t. Ryu isn’t a fireballer by any means — his fastball tops out around 89 miles per hour — but his secret weapon is his pinpoint control.

Ryu posted the second-lowest walk rate in MLB among pitchers last year, a mere 3.3% walk rate in 2019. And without a blistering fastball, he’s a magician at limiting hard contact; ranking in the 96th percentile in exit velocity, the 88th percentile in hard hit rate, and the 82nd percentile among opposing xwOBA.

He’s also armed with one of the best changeups in all of baseball. The pitch value on Ryu’s changeup (21.5) ranked third among all Major League starters in 2019. While his peripheral numbers don’t leap off the page, it’s easy to see why a pitcher like Ryu would be very attractive to the Blue Jays.

The million dollar question though is whether the Blue Jays can outbid the other suitors for Ryu’s services. Any team that misses out on Cole or who found Strasburg too expensive could look to Ryu as a suitable Plan B for their starting rotation.

The Minnesota Twins and Dodgers are reportedly two competitors for Ryu’s services. A reunion with the Dodgers makes all the sense in the world, as the Dodgers have ample money to spend and Ryu spend the last six seasons in Los Angeles.

MLB Trade Rumours predicted the southpaw would land a three-year, $54 million contract, while FanGraphs forecasted Ryu signing a two-year, $32 million contract. Surely, the Blue Jays would happily sign Ryu for either of those amounts. However, they’ll need to come over the top with an additional year or sweeten the pot with a higher AAV to pry Ryu away from playing on the west coast.

Of all the remaining realist free agent starting pitcher targets for the Blue Jays, Ryu seems like the biggest difference-maker among the bunch. He’d vault into the number one starter position in Toronto, although he may not arrive with the bona fide “ace” tag.

In a vacuum, signing a starting pitcher of Ryu’s ilk doesn’t jive for a Blue Jays team coming off a 65-win season. It’s not the like they’re expected to contend in the immediate future, which is a draw for many free agents.

What the Blue Jays can provide that other teams can’t is money; Toronto has very little salary on the books in 2020 and beyond, and they can more than afford to carry a $20 million per year starter like Ryu.

And although he’s likely to fetch front-of-the-rotation money, in an ideal world, Ryu is only the number two or three starter for the Blue Jays within the next few years. The number one starter on the Blue Jays should be Nate Pearson, followed by another high-impact arm (perhaps acquired through trade) and then someone like Ryu.

Admittedly, that’s a blue sky scenario for the Blue Jays over the next few years, but it’s something the club should consider when tabling an offer to Ryu. They’ll have to overpay, but it’s more about fitting arms around a starter like Ryu rather than having him anchor this Blue Jays starting rotation for the next two-to-three years.

If the Blue Jays are looking down the line towards their next window of contention, the best comparable I can make is towards the Dodgers. This past year, Ryu emerged as a solid number two starter behind Walker Buehler, who was followed by one of the best pitchers of this generation, Clayton Kershaw.

There was once a time when Clayton Kershaw was the best pitcher in the National League. But he’s lost his footing and Bueller rose through the Dodgers’ ranks to become the team’s next number one starter.

Taking that over to Toronto, ideally, Pearson becomes the next Buehler, Ryu turns into Kershaw and someone else from the Blue Jays’ farm system becomes the next Ryu of 2019.

This plan hinges on the Blue Jays going out and signing a starter like Ryu this offseason. Because if they wait until next year when the team might be ready to take the leap towards contention, the next Ryu may not be available.

Rarely are the pieces there for the taking at the same time. Even though they were a bottom-dwelling team, the Blue Jays need to start assembling the pieces towards building a contender, bit by bit.

Landing Ryu would be a solid first step.