This winter’s free agent class was once full of starting pitching. The offseason began with starting pitchers representing 10 of the top 20 free agents overall, and 21 of FanGraphs’ Top 50 Free Agents. After Dallas Keuchel signed with Chicago White Sox, Hyun-Jin Ryu, 40-year-old Rich Hill, and Homer Bailey were the only ranked starters remaining, and only Ryu represented a good bet for production next season. With many teams still in need of reinforcements for their rotations, competition for the lefty’s services was likely strong. Among potential contenders, the Twins and Angels presented the greatest need for a starter, but it was the Blue Jays who surprised and reached agreement on a four-year deal worth $80 million, per Jeff Passan.
Ryu will turn 33 years old in March, so the end of this contract will take him through his age-36 season. He’s got a complicated injury history (he hit the injured list again for a short time last season), but a strong 2019 combined with his status as the last man standing on the free agent market allowed him to far exceed the $48 million crowdsource median ($59 million average), as well as Kiley McDaniel’s $32 million estimate. In Ryu’s free agent capsule, Jay Jaffe noted the factors working in the left-hander’s favor, as well as those working against him, as he headed into free agency:
After being limited to 15 starts in 2018 due to a severe groin strain, the portly port-sider pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title for the first time since his 2013 rookie campaign. He didn’t just qualify, he led the NL with a 2.32 mark despite fading late. Through July, he posted a 1.53 ERA and 2.85 FIP, but that ballooned to 4.60 and 3.83 over the final two months, with a 10-day IL stint for neck soreness thrown in. Ryu’s success isn’t quite as enigmatic or unorthodox as his process, which includes rarely throwing bullpens between starts. Via a five-pitch arsenal, with his changeup the real star, he’s exceptional at limiting hard contact; his average exit velocity of 85.3 mph ranked in the 96th percentile, his .282 xwOBA in the 81st. His strikeout rate was a modest 22.5%, but he walked an NL-low 3.3%, so his 19.2% K-BB% ranked 12th, and his 3.10 FIP fourth. After accepting a qualifying offer last fall, he’s well-positioned for a multi-year deal despite the questions about his durability.
Last month, Michael Augustine wrote on Ryu’s changeup, noting that it had the best results in baseball last season. Augustine explained Ryu’s ability to mix his pitches, hide them, and then finish batters off with his four-seamer and change:
Another factor that made Ryu’s changeup so effective was how he mixed his pitches under particular circumstances. Ryu used his changeup almost as much as his fastballs when ahead in the count. He most regularly used it against righties and most often went to the pitch against left-handed hitters to draw a strike when the hitter was ahead (26%) and when he was up to two strikes (29%).
Ryu is currently projected for a roughly three-win season, and if he stays healthy, he’s a good bet to get there. By results, history, and projections, Ryu is essentially an older version of Zack Wheeler, who received $38 million more to sign with Phillies earlier this offseason. Ryu’s age and injury history make a four-year deal a risky proposition, which would seemingly create an ideal fit for a team looking to win now. That makes Ryu’s signing with Toronto curious, though it’s not as if the team doesn’t need starting pitching.
The list of starting pitchers who finished the season with Toronto and were worth even a single win above replacement contains just one name: Trent Thornton. The team traded away Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, leaving very little competence in the rotation heading into 2020. The team’s 7.2 WAR from starting pitchers ranked 24th in the game, and Stroman accounted for three of those wins. Edwin Jackson, Clay Buchholz, and Clayton Richard combined for 27 starts and -0.6 WAR.
But the team’s earlier moves this winter seemed to signal an attempt to avoid that fate. The team tendered a contract to Matt Shoemaker, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL. Then, the team traded for Chase Anderson (and his cutter), who has been at least competent over the last three seasons with the Brewers. They signed Tanner Roark to a two-year deal worth $24 million; the righty has been at least an average innings eater for four years running. They added a little more insurance in the form of Shun Yamaguchi, who might be more likely to be a reliever, but has experience starting and could step into that role next season. While those moves might help the Blue Jays be not terrible, they won’t necessarily make the rotation good. Even with the addition of Ryu, the Toronto rotation still isn’t among the top half in baseball.
Ryu followed by Roark, Anderson, Thornton, and Shoemaker don’t make for the rotation of a contender. But Ryu, Roark, Thornton, the emergence of top prospect Nate Pearson, and perhaps improvement from Anthony Kay gives the team depth and creates considerably more excitement than the team’s back-end options a year ago. Toronto’s crop of position players is still considerably more exciting, with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette leading the charge, Cavan Biggio manning second base, and Danny Jansen and Reese McGuire at catcher. The club also added some upside with signing of Travis Shaw, who put up seven wins between 2017 and 2018 before a below-replacement 2019 campaign. The outfield has some issues with Randal Grichuk, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., Teoscar Hernández, and Derek Fisher providing slightly below-average projections, but the position player group as a whole sits firmly in the middle of the pack with the ability to develop and exceed expectations.
Signing Hyun Jin Ryu makes the Blue Jays something of a .500 team. Toronto is looking to build more excitement for 2020, but full-fledged contention seems more reasonable in 2021. Ryu is a risk to still be good in 2021, though with next year’s free agent class consisting of Marcus Stroman (who isn’t likely to return to Toronto), James Paxton, Trevor Bauer, Jose Quintana, Mike Minor, Robbie Ray, and not much else, trying to find two good pitchers a season from now is a fairly tall order given the lack of options. Ryu helps to act as a bridge to 2021, creating some enthusiasm in 2020 as the Blue Jays get ready to compete. Even after signing Ryu, the Blue Jays payroll sits just a little north of $100 million, and $60 million short of the team payrolls from 2016-2018. The team still has a lot of room if they want to get better now, but this looks more like a move before the team makes a bigger splash 12 months down the line.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.