Left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu could have shopped his services to all 30 major league teams last offseason, but the career-long Dodger opted against going to the open market. Instead, Ryu accepted a $17.9MM qualifying offer to stay in Los Angeles, in part because of a long list of injury troubles that could have hampered his earning power. Dating back to 2013, the Korean-born Ryu’s first season in the majors, he has missed significant time because of arm problems (including shoulder and elbow surgeries) as well as foot and groin issues. The latter forced Ryu to the 10-day IL earlier this season, but he got off to a strong start before then and has come back far better since returning April 20.
After throwing just 82 1/3 innings last season, Ryu has already amassed 73 frames through the first two months of 2019. Ryu shut out the Mets over 7 2/3 innings on Thursday to finish May with an incredible four scoreless starts in six tries. Across 45 2/3 innings this month, Ryu pitched to a near-spotless 0.59 ERA with 36 strikeouts against a meager three walks. He now owns easily the majors’ leading ERA (1.48) and walk rate (0.62 per nine, with 8.51 K/9). His success in the run prevention and walk categories doesn’t look like a fluke either. Ryu, after all, put up a 1.97 ERA with 1.64 BB/9 (against 9.73 K/9) during his injury-shortened 2018.
Even if Ryu isn’t quite as great as his ERA indicates, his 2.78 FIP over the past season-plus is befitting of a front-line starter and ranks sixth among all pitchers who have thrown at least 150 innings since 2018. He’s behind a pretty good quintet of Jacob deGrom, Chris Sale, Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Gerrit Cole in that regard. DeGrom, Sale and Corbin have each scored nine-figure contracts going back to the offseason, while Cole figures to join them when he reaches free agency during the upcoming winter.
Ryu’s also on schedule to reach the open market, though he’s not going to cash in to the same extent as Cole. Concerns over Ryu’s durability figure to combine with the soon-to-be 33-year-old’s age and 2013-17 performance (when he was good but not great) to cap his earning power. However, he can look in his own locker room to find a lefty who overcame injury questions, advanced age and a far shorter track record than Ryu’s to recently score a large payday in free agency. That’s Rich Hill, whom the Dodgers re-signed to a three-year, $48MM guarantee heading into 2017 – his age-37 season.
Free agency worked out for Hill, but one would be remiss to ignore the fact that the process has taken an unfriendly turn for certain hurlers since he landed his payday. Jake Arrieta received less guaranteed cash than expected in 2018, while Gio Gonzalez settled for a minor league deal entering this season and Dallas Keuchel remains unsigned. At the same time, however, Nathan Eovaldi, Alex Cobb, J.A. Happ, Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn did surmount obstacles of their own en route to $30MM-plus guarantees in the previous two offseasons.
We’ll use the $30MM number as a jumping-off point for this poll, but if Ryu continues to perform like a front-line option and stay reasonably healthy, he could blow past it.
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