TORONTO — “Hello, Canada. Bonjour!”
Hyun-Jin Ryu took center stage at Rogers Centre on Friday for the first time as a member of the Toronto Blue Jays, making his first mark on another nation after beginning his professional career as a star in his home country of South Korea, then taking the United States by storm last season as the Major League ERA leader and the runner-up in National League Cy Young Award voting with the Dodgers.
The 32-year-old left-hander began his address to the country north of the border in English — with a greeting in French — and thanked the Blue Jays’ brass and the fans before sharing, “I am happy to be here, and I’m going to make the Toronto Blue Jays proud.”
Toronto’s president and CEO Mark Shapiro called the event “an exciting day for Blue Jays fans across Toronto and in Korea.” General manager Ross Atkins shared that he looked forward “to the day you take the mound and you’re representing two nations.”
From the moment the season ended, the Blue Jays have stressed a need to get better and a desire to do just that. With the official announcement of Ryu’s four-year, $80 million deal, the club is excited about the step forward the addition of the southpaw signifies.
“It’s one piece that has helped us now make another step,” Atkins said. “We knew we had to find ways to add pitching. We knew we had to find ways to complement and supplement this rotation. We felt like we had good acquisitions in Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark, [Shun] Yamaguchi as well, and obviously having [Matt] Shoemaker back.”
Added Shapiro: “This is the next step in what we feel is a plan to build a sustainable championship team.”
Ryu, who was born in Incheon, South Korea, led the Majors with a 2.32 ERA last season and compiled a 14-5 record over 182 2/3 innings for the Dodgers, earning his first career All-Star appearance, where he was the starting pitcher for the NL squad. Ryu finished among the NL’s top three with a 6.79 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 0.84 home runs allowed per nine innings, a 1.01 WHIP, a .263 opponents’ average and 9.26 baserunners allowed per nine frames.
“One of the things that we love most about our jobs is watching on a daily and nightly basis exceptional things happening on a baseball field, and the more that we dug into Ryu and spent time learning about him, the more excited we got and the more exceptional he became to us,” Atkins said. “He really stood out — his ability to command the ball so exceptionally well, get outs at every quadrant of the zone with four different pitches, insane athleticism and just ability on the field is, it was something exceptional to watch.”
Ryu is set to become the third Korean-born player to don a Blue Jays uniform, joining Rob Refsnyder and Seunghwan Oh. His 54 regular-season victories in the Majors are tied for the second-most ever by a Korean-born pitcher, to Chan Ho Park’s 124. As he did in Los Angeles, Ryu will wear No. 99 for the Blue Jays, a number synonymous in Canada with the great Wayne Gretzky.
“Canada lent No. 99 to L.A.,” Ryu’s agent, Scott Boras, said. “So with Hyun-Jin, we thought we would return it back to Canada.”
The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Ryu signed as an international free agent with the Dodgers in 2012 out of the Korea Baseball Organization — after seven seasons with the Eagles — and owns a career 2.98 ERA and 1.16 WHIP over six big league seasons.
Toronto has a promising crop of young position players but had been looking for an accomplished starter to lead its rotation. Ryu should fill that void in 2020 and beyond, provided he can stay healthy. He made just 41 appearances — 40 starts – between 2015-18, as he was hampered by persistent injuries.
“There is no free-agent signing where you’re not sharing some risk,” Atkins said of Ryu’s injury history. “We feel we have added an incredible talent to the organization, feel like he’s evolved and learned from … his transition as a professional and as a Major League Baseball pitcher. We’re confident he’s going to continue what he needs to do to be able to stay on the field.”
Boras shared that Ryu is excited to join a franchise with an exciting future where he can step into a leadership role.
“He said, ‘I want to come here to be a winner, I want to come here to be a leader,’” Boras said of Ryu. “’I want to be a contributor.’ He’s never won a world championship, and the appeal of the contract length allows him to be a part of something that could get him to the playoffs and allow that to happen.”
Alexis Brudnicki is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @baseballexis.
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