LONGLEY: Blue Jays’ Hyun-Jin Ryu quietly working towards meaningful late-summer return

DUNEDIN, Fla. — At spring training, baseball people find themselves dreaming the most optimistic of dreams.

With 162 games awaiting, the world in February and March is full of possibilities.

You are reading: LONGLEY: Blue Jays’ Hyun-Jin Ryu quietly working towards meaningful late-summer return

There is an under-the-radar hope beneath the bigger and obvious ones in the Blue Jays clubhouse, one revived every time the south Korean southpaw, Hyun-Jin Ryu, wanders through to his locker stall at the far end of the room where the rest of the team’s starters reside.

Trimmed down some 15 pounds since we last saw him, Ryu is working his way through the achingly long recovery from Tommy John surgery. And he still has hopes of a meaningful finish to his four years with the Jays, fulfilling the promise he brought with him.

He may be months away from a possible return, but the early reviews of Ryu’s progress are strong.

“He looks great,” Jays pitching coach Pete Walker said recently. “Physically, he’s in really good shape and he’s doing a great job of taking care of his body during his time rehabbing. Watching him play catch, watching him stretch it out a little bit … he looks like his normal self.

“I’m really excited to see him back.”

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Through circumstances not always related to performance, the Ryu years have been mostly unfulfilling, both for the pitcher himself and a Toronto fan base that never truly had an opportunity to embrace him.

When the Jays signed the former Los Angeles Dodgers starter to a four-year, $80-million US deal in December 2019, it was the start of the big money free-agent spending by the team. Billboards to market the prized new free agent were planned in his honour where Toronto’s bustling Korean community would welcome the team’s new ace.

And then COVID hit prior to his first season, which ended up being the best of Ryu’s three with the franchise thus far. In that pandemic-shortened campaign, the big lefty was an American League Cy Young Award finalist after posting a 2.69 ERA while posting a 5-2 record over 12 starts.

The regression began in 2021 when that ERA ballooned to 4.37 and the early signs of arm problems that would shut down his 2022 season after just six starts.

And now, the prospect of finishing off that contract healthy and ideally for a team in a playoff race is enticing, even if it remains in the distance.

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“The fans haven’t been able to see him at his best,” Walker said. “The COVID year, obviously, he was really good for us and then he ran into some issues physically.

“I think he’s driven, not only to help the team out and be a part of the team this year, but it’s also to show Toronto what he’s really capable of doing and be able to pitch in front of that crowd.”

Ryu did make 12 starts for the Jays at the Rogers Centre over parts of 2021 and 2022, going 4-4. But rarely was he at his best before being shut down with arm problems and Tommy John surgery this past June.

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“There’s definitely some frustrating on his end with not being able to do that to this point and he’s driven to do that,” Walker said. “I certainly wouldn’t put it past him and we would love to see it.”

Of course there’s another rather large motivation for Ryu in his final year under contract with the Jays. The native of Incheon, South Korea, turns 36 next week and could be playing for one final big league contract if he were to return and be effective.

Walker and the rest of the Jays staff won’t get too carried away with their projections because of the long road of recovery still remaining. But should Ryu return in July or August and be good enough to provide rotational depth, it could replicate a key, late-season addition for a team bulking up for a run.

“I don’t like to get too far ahead of myself — we’re focused right now on spring training with the guys who are here pitching right now,” Walker said. “But with guys like Ryu and (reliever Chad Green, who is also recovering from surgery)  and knowing what they’re capable of at that point of the season, it’s exciting.

“It’s tough to keep everybody healthy all year and there’s a need for a lot of pitchers to help out at different times. So to have guys like that potentially available late in the season, it’s nice to think about. I love the fact that we have those guys potentially available.”

In the meantime, Ryu is gradually working his way back into the clubhouse, carrying on with teammates such as Alek Manoah and others.

“The main thing is for him to get healthy, to feel great, to put himself in a position to help us out,” Walker said. “To become another option, a good option, to have late in the season.

“I think he’s dedicated. He’s driven to help this team out at some point this year and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to make a successful comeback.”

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