Ever since the Braves spent big-time dollars during the B.J. Upton era, they have stuck to short term contracts, even as they have developed into a two-time division champion. They were willing to give Josh Donaldson a healthy salary, but only on a one-year deal. Now, the Braves feature a plethora of value contracts and an excellent young core, with loads of money coming off the books. We know they want to bolster their starting rotation, and there are several intriguing options available – but none more polarizing perhaps than Hyun Jin-Ryu.
Despite coming off an unreal year, at 32 years of age with a laundry list of injuries in his past, Ryu is unlikely to get a lengthy contract in free agency. He is just a year removed from accepting a qualifying offer from the Dodgers, and even though he led the MLB in ERA, teams are hesitant to offer lucrative, long-term deals to aging arms with an injury history. With that being said, he is sure to receive a fat contract as far as AAV is concerned. So how does he fit in with the Braves?
The Braves need to upgrade from Dallas Keuchel, who is now a free agent. He was a solid veteran that helped Atlanta to an NL East title, but they need an arm that can dominate in the postseason and offers more swing and miss stuff come playoff time. While it would be ideal to see them go after Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg, remember Liberty Media’s hesitancy towards commitment, they might give Alex Anthopoulos some leeway to spend money this offseason, but probably not $30+ million over the next 6-8 years. You could also make the argument that over the last two years, Ryu has been better than both Strasburg and Cole. We saw this firsthand in the 2018 playoffs when he was named the Game 1 starter and completely shut down the Braves’ lineup, limiting them to just four hits.
Ryu offers a similar upside and would likely only come with a three or four-year time commitment. If the Braves opt to keep Sean Newcomb in the bullpen, he also offers another lefty arm to the rotation. And on top of that, he could be a great piece atop the rotation to complement Mike Soroka. We saw the way the Nationals’ pitching carried them in the playoffs, and the Braves are going to have to keep up just to return to October.
I would offer Ryu in the $20 million AAV neighborhood for three years, likely half of the years Strasburg or Cole will receive. Even if he does not end up having ace stuff, his track record since joining the MLB suggests, at the very least, he is a safe option going forward – as long as he’s healthy.
Shoulder problems cost Ryu pretty much all of the 2015 and 2016 seasons. He only had 24 starts in 2017 and missed half of 2018. However, his half of baseball was some of the best in the majors, posting a 1.97 ERA in 15 starts. Finally, this past season, he was healthy for the majority of the year, throwing the most innings since his rookie season back in 2013 and leading baseball in ERA with a 2.32 mark.
Regression was going to hit him eventually after one of the best starts to a season in MLB history, but that does not change the fact Ryu has elite stuff, even if his fastball sits in the low 90s. He would be a significant upgrade over Dallas Keuchel and offer Atlanta’s rotation a much-needed boost. Offering $18-20 million over three years might be just enough to make the Dodgers think twice and pursue other options on the starting pitching market, which will probably be less than what Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler receive.