Blue Jays break the bank with risk-reward signing of ace Hyun-Jin Ryu

National League pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu (99) of the Los Angeles Dodgers throws to first base for the out against the American League during the first inning in the 2019 MLB All Star Game at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY

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The Blue Jays have found their ace — a big-money, top-of-the-rotation starter in the form of free agent left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu.

And in landing the 32-year-old South Korean late Sunday night, general manager Ross Atkins turned an interesting off-season into a potential blockbuster.

Yes, the four-year, US $80-million deal for Ryu not only gives the Jays a much-needed lead man of the pitching staff, it vaulted the credibility of the rebuilding team throughout the baseball world.

With one signing — weeks in the making, according to team sources — the Jays are back in the game in a big way.

Not enough, perhaps, to counter the powerhouse Yankees who got strong with the signing of superstar Gerrit Cole earlier this month. But it was enough to show that ownership is committed to complementing the outstanding core of young position players with credible, accomplished pitching.

A home-run acquisition for  Atkins and team president Mark Shapiro, the Ryu signing gives manager Charlie Montoyo and pitching coach Pete Walker a legitimate starter to lead the young team after one of its worst seasons in decades.

Although he pitched for the Los Angeles Dodgers for six seasons, Ryu led the majors with an ERA of 2.32 in his outstanding 2019 campaign. That effort also earned him an all-star berth plus a runner-up for the National League Cy Young Award following a season in which he had a 14-5 record over 182.2 innings of work.

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Clearly, the southpaw immediately vaults to the top of a Toronto rotation that, for the most part, was a disaster last season. It got particularly bad when Aaron Sanchez continued to battle injury issues and Marcus Stroman was a disruption in the clubhouse. Both were dealt prior to the July 31 MLB trade deadline and a troubled season in which the Jays used 21 different starters.

In Ryu, however, the team now has a legit ace to build around and complement the talented group of young players led by Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette and Cavan Biggio.

It also makes it a productive off-season for Atkins and a Jays front office that has taken great heat from a frustrated fan base for relative inactivity over the past couple winters. Quietly, the Jays brass made it known they were serious about Ryu, however, and from a perception standpoint with the club’s followers, landing him has to be viewed as a large score.

The fact they were able to land Ryu carries added significance given that the Jays outlasted as many as six other suitors for one of the top starting pitchers available.

Already, the team has acquired potential starters in Chase Anderson, Tanner Roark and Shun Yamaguchi, the latter who would appear to be a candidate for the bullpen.

The reported $80-million outlay is the most under the current administration and is the most money the team has spent since signing Canadian-born catcher Russell Martin to a five-year, $82-million contract. It also continues a massive MLB off-season for free-agent pitchers to break the bank. The biggest of those contracts went to Cole, who signed with the Yankees for a record US $324 million.

In a perfect world, the Jays likely would have preferred topping out at three years for Ryu, so the term certainly brings some risk as the pitcher ages. On the other hand, with the Yankees getting so strong, so much young talent on their own roster and attendance plummeting, one could argue that the team could ill afford not to make a splash by acquiring a quality arm.

The recent Jays acquisitions certainly change the makeup of a pitching staff that laboured last year. If you were projecting a rotation today — seven weeks and change before pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla., for spring training — Ryu would be at the top followed by Roark, Anderson, and Matt Shoemaker (who is coming off of knee surgery), with Ryan Borucki and Trent Thornton battling for the fifth spot.

With Ryu under contract for four years, if things go to plan, the Jays’ pitching situation now seems loaded with promise. Nate Pearson, one of the most coveted pitching prospects in the game, is a year at most from a potential arrival in the big leagues. A host of other strong arms, including 2019 first-round pick Alek Manoah, are also well-regarded.

The need for pitching help was dire and it was immediate, especially after what unfolded in a 95-loss 2019 season. A Christmas miracle? Perhaps not, but the signing came just in time for excited fans to stuff some Jays tickets under the tree.

HYUN-JIN RYU FILE

AGE: 32

THROWS: Left

ARSENAL: Ryu employs a five-pitch mix to work into his finesse style rather than relying on pure power. A baseball that sits in the 91-mph range is complemented by his changeup, which is more often than not his go-to offering. Ryu also uses a curve and a cutter to accent his versatility.

SKINNY: The South Korean is coming off the best year of his career, a nice bounce-back from 2018 when he missed 90 games with a groin strain … A hugely popular player in his homeland, plans are already in the works for the majority of Jays games to be telecast back in South Korea … Second in NL Cy Young voting in 2019, the first season in four that he didn’t miss at least some time due to injury … Ryu’s 2.32 ERA last season is almost three full runs less than the average of 5.25 put up by Jays starters in 2019 … Has a lifetime ERA of 2.98 over 125 career starts in the big leagues.

Could the Blue Jays be looking to reacquire veteran lefty David Price, currently throwing for the Boston red Sox? USA TODAY SPORTS

JAYS STILL SHOPPING

There are only hours remaining for last-minute Christmas shoppers, but there’s a good chunk of off-season remaining for Major League Baseball general managers to check on the merchandise.

And, to that end, it appears as if the Blue Jays aren’t done browsing just yet in what has already been a busy and productive off-season.

The acquisition of free-agent pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu late Sunday night will likely be their biggest haul this winter, but sources around baseball suggest GM Ross Atkins and the Toronto front office are still in aggressive shopping mode.

Among the most mentioned potential targets are a pair of popular former Jays: Free-agent designated hitter Edwin Encarnacion and current Red Sox starter David Price.

The Jays have been linked to both, with Encarnacion an intriguing possibility at DH. For Price to return via trade, the Red Sox would likely have to eat up a large portion of the US$96 million over three years remaining on the 34-year-old’s contract with the Sox.

It’s unclear whether the Ryu signing will have the Jays walk away from Price, but by all indications they’ve been taking a hard look at the veteran.

“(The Jays) are still looking to make the team better,” said one MLB source familiar with the team’s interests both before and after the Ryu signing.

rlongley@postmedia.com

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