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Free Agent Spotlight: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Should the Cardinals sign the Cy Young candidate?

Divisional Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Washington Nationals - Game Three Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

I will for the moment continue my series on looking at the free agent starting pitchers the Cardinals could, possibly should, attempt to acquire. I ignored both Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg because the Cardinals are obviously not getting them, and I put Zack Wheeler in that bucket as well, which appears to have been a smart decision, since he just signed for 5 years, $118 million with the Philadelphia Phillies. I personally am unable to get the Wheeler who wasn’t very good for five years out of my head whenever I think of Wheeler so I cannot be trusted on my opinion of him as a player.

And again it must be said that this pitcher, and any pitcher I end up covering, could be put under the box “the Cardinals are obviously not getting him” as well. But it’s a long offseason, starting pitching is a need, and I will draw attention to that every chance I get. Since I can’t write “Sign a starting pitcher” 20 times this offseason - I guess nothing is stopping me but you’d all get sick of me fast - think of this series as me saying “sign a starting pitcher” in a more creative way.

On to today’s subject, we have a very unusual free agent I think. One simply needs to look at his career, his most recent season, and his age, and I’m not sure there’s a whole lot of comps out there for this type of player at free agency. In November of 2012, the Dodgers paid Hanwha Eagles of the Korean League $25.7 million for the right to negotiate with Hyun-Jin Ryu and then signed Ryu to a 6 year, $36 million deal a month later. The Dodgers received 10.3 fWAR for $61.7 million in those six years. A very good investment.

But it could have gone better. Things went according to plan his first two seasons in Dodger blue, with back-to-back great seasons. In a full season in 2013, he was worth 3.8 fWAR and in his second season, he was worth 4.0 fWAR in just 26 starts. But as you can see, he ended up with 10.3 fWAR so his next four years did not go so well. He injured his left shoulder labrum that knocked him out for all of 2015. He returned in July in 2016, pitched one start, and then eventually had debridement surgery on his left elbow. Left shoulder, left elbow, not great signs here.

His 2017 was a rebound of sorts, but he wasn’t the same as his first two years, which is probably to be expected given the circumstances. Thanks to allowing a lot of HRs, he only was worth 0.6 fWAR (but 3.77 ERA), but more importantly, he managed to start 24 games, going on the IL twice for more minor injuries during the season. In 2018, his left groin presented a problem for most of the year, with him starting only 15 games. But he pitched great in those 15 games. Dodgers offered him the qualifying offer, he accepted it, and pitched the best season of his life.

And that’s where he is today. A couple of important details with Ryu that need to be known before signing him: since he accepted the qualifying offer last year, he could not be offered it this year, so signing him would not result in the loss of a draft pick. Also, he’s going to be 33. I don’t care how good you are recently, if you’re 33 and have this guy’s injury history - he also had Tommy John surgery back in 2004 - well you can understand why he’s in a different conversation than the top tier pitchers even though his stats were top tier in 2019.

Still though, Ryu has been a 3.7 fWAR per 180 IP throughout his career and while you’re not likely to get those 180 innings, he can still be impactful with less starts than most pitchers can with a full 32 games. And maybe you’ll get those 180 innings like last season. All of a sudden you have an ace pitcher at Mike Leake prices. Actually, less than Mike Leake according to MLBTR. They are projecting a 3 year, $54 million salary with the Texas Rangers.

Unfortunately, Steamer is perhaps a solid projection system on a rate basis, but they seem to completely ignore playing time. See this guy’s injury history? They think he’s throwing 171 innings in 2020, which could happen, but no projection system in their right mind would actually project it unless you’re just ignoring innings. Ryu has averaged 105 innings per season throughout his career, but that’s not completely fair, since he started 2016 injured and so far as we know, he’s currently healthy. Ignoring that season completely - which also isn’t right but I’m keeping this simple - he has averaged 122.2 innings. Not a whole lot better, but we’ll go with that.

Much like last time, Steamer is going a bit crazy with the HRs. This will be a theme I’m sure. They do predict a lower GB%, which contributes to a higher HR/9, but he already had a 13 HR/FB% last year and I don’t think it’d get a whole lot higher at Busch Stadium. He has a career 0.88 HR/9, and had a 0.98 HR/9 in 2017 with a slightly lower GB% than he’s expected to have next year with a 11.8 HR/FB%. I feel comfortable giving him a 1.00 HR/9 for 2019. His FIP goes from 4.07 to 3.69 and his WAR goes from 2.9 to 3.7 per 171 innings. But he’s not expected to throw 171 innings. We have him down for 122.2 IP. His WAR in that timeframe is 2.7 fWAR, which feels a bit high, but he did just have a 4.8 fWAR season.

And MLBTR seems to nail it again with the projection. With a 2.7 fWAR projection and 0.5 decline - which I do feel comfortable with given his age and it maybe should arguably be more - he’s expected to get 6.6 fWAR over the length of the contract. Again, I don’t have his ZiPS which I would trust way more than my back of the napkin calculations, but that’s paying him $8.2 million per WAR which is more than reasonable at free agent prices.

Here’s my counterargument. Signing Ryu just adds another risky pitcher to the table. Carlos Martinez, Dakota Hudson, Alex Reyes, Adam Wainwright are all kind of risky bets. Adding one more increases the likelihood that multiple pitchers of that group will work out, but it’s still kind of a dangerous game. I mean you need three pitchers to work out! He’s enough of a risky bet that I’m not actually sure I’ll get mad when the Cardinals don’t sign him.

But then again, just because you sign Ryu doesn’t mean you have to stop there. I realize I’m really reaching on the plausibility factors here, but signing Ryu and getting another guy is the move if you get Ryu (whether by FA or a trade), just because he doesn’t specifically solve what I consider the main problem of the rotation. Ryu significantly raises the upside and would be a short-term investment, but he’s also likely to not pitch very much during this deal. I’m a firm “would love to have him, don’t care if you we don’t get him” on Ryu. Thoughts?