In the last two months, Hyun-Jin Ryu clinched the Major League ERA title, won his lone postseason start and finished runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award race.
And yet, now that Ryu is a free agent, it’s still hard to envision him signing with any team besides the Dodgers.
But other factors could narrow Ryu’s market. He signed with the Dodgers out of South Korea, and Los Angeles is the only American city he's called home. The league consensus, as MLB.com’s Mark Feinsand reported at the beginning of this month, is that Ryu would prefer to stay in Southern California. Ryu’s age (he turns 33 in March) and injury history also factor in; 2019 marked the first time in half a decade that he pitched enough to qualify for the ERA title.
All of this makes Ryu’s free agency feel like it’s approaching foregone-conclusion territory, with the road signs painted in Dodger blue. But until he signs on the dotted line, we’re still talking about the pitcher with the second-lowest ERA of anyone (min. 250 innings) over the last two seasons. Plenty of teams can, and should, pursue a pitcher like Ryu, so let’s count down the 16 best fits for the star southpaw besides the Dodgers.
Could benefit from Ryu; not likely to sign him
16-11) Red Sox, Astros, Cubs, D-backs, Rockies, Brewers
The Red Sox still have a solid starting quartet in Chris Sale, David Price, Nathan Eovaldi and Eduardo Rodriguez, but Rodriguez being the most consistent of those four in 2019 speaks volumes. The main problem is Boston is very publicly cutting payroll. Gerrit Cole’s probable departure, along with Wade Miley, leaves holes in Houston, though the Astros appear ready to audition their prospect arms. The Cubs’ rotation isn’t getting any younger, so while adding Ryu represents a plus on paper, Theo Epstein and company might be hesitant to add another 30-something starter.
Ryu would give the D-backs a solid top two when paired with Robbie Ray, but Arizona’s focus appears to be on its youngsters like Luke Weaver, Taijuan Walker and Zac Gallen. The Rockies need an established arm like Ryu more than any club on this list, but they’re likely hamstrung by previous contracts given to Ian Desmond, Daniel Murphy, Wade Davis and Bryan Shaw. Plus, Ryu’s worst start of 2019 (seven earned runs and three homers allowed over four innings) came in June at Coors Field.
The Brewers have seemingly needed a frontline starter for two years running, and manager Craig Counsell’s creativity could jive well with potential innings restrictions for Ryu down the line. But Counsell’s success with his internal options could also decrease Milwaukee’s motivation to spend.
Should go after Ryu -- but it’s complicated
10-4) Giants, Braves, Angels, Padres, Rays, Athletics, Rangers
Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi is plenty familiar with Ryu from his Dodger days, and this is one way for San Francisco to fill the possible Madison Bumgarner-sized hole in the rotation. Whether Zaidi feels the Giants are close enough to contention to spend on an asset as risky as Ryu remains to be seen. Atlanta should go after starting pitching now that it’s sewn up its bullpen, and Ryu makes more sense than qualifying-offer recipients Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler, since the Braves already surrendered Draft pick compensation to sign Will Smith (Ryu is ineligible for the QO this year). But it still feels like Atlanta might go with a known quantity like Cole Hamels or Dallas Keuchel, who could probably be penciled in for 150-plus innings and an ERA around 4.00 right now.
The Angels obviously need a pitcher like Ryu, though they’re more focused on Cole and Stephen Strasburg. Plus, Los Angeles doesn’t have the rotation depth to recover if Ryu goes down with an injury. You could probably say the same about the Padres, who have a stable of young arms like Chris Paddack, Dinelson Lamet and MacKenzie Gore (MLB Pipeline’s No. 4 overall prospect) that might not be ready to take the keys just yet. A top four of Charlie Morton, Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow and Ryu would be the envy of the AL in Tampa Bay, but the Rays have bigger needs elsewhere, especially after they excelled with only three true starters in 2019.
It’s no secret the A’s could use a frontline starter, and Ryu would be leaving one pitcher’s paradise for another in Oakland, but they’re not expected to spend on anything more than a reliever and a backup catcher. Conversely, the Rangers have payroll space and new-ballpark motivation to spend, and they are reportedly bullish on Ryu’s talent. But would Ryu really leave Los Angeles to be a team’s No. 3 starter? Ryu’s fellow countryman Chan Ho Park felt the pain of leaving L.A. to pitch in Texas (108 ERA+ with the Dodgers, 83 with the Rangers), and it’s still unknown whether Globe Life Field will also be a launch pad.
The 3 teams that should really pursue Ryu
Yankee Stadium is a launch pad, too, but the pinstripes should be looking at Ryu to combat lefty bats swinging for the short porch. The Yankees probably face more pressure to add a quality starter than even the Angels, but they might have a hard time convincing Ryu to leave Los Angeles for the New York pressure cooker. Plus, anything shy of signing Cole or Strasburg probably qualifies as a disappointment in the Bronx.
Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi will be back, but the rest of the rotation is in flux with Kyle Gibson, Michael Pineda and Martín Pérez all on the free-agent market. Even if Gibson and Pineda return, the Yankees exposed Minnesota’s need for another big arm in the ALDS. Ryu’s projected contract (three years and $48 million, per FanGraphs’ crowdsource estimate) is seemingly right in the Twins’ comfort zone, and this club hasn’t seen a starter match Ryu’s 4.8 fWAR total since Phil Hughes in 2014.
For a franchise that’s maybe a piece or two away from the pennant, Ryu seems like the perfect buy. The one thing that’s hard to get past, however, is Ryu leaving Southern California’s sunshine for 35-degree April outings at Target Field.
1) White Sox
OK, so early-season baseball isn’t that much warmer on the South Side, but the White Sox are right there with the Angels and Yankees at the intersection of starting-pitching needs and spending ability -- and Cole and Strasburg are more likely to choose the other two clubs.
Tim Anderson, Lucas Giolito, Eloy Jimenez and Yoán Moncada all improved this year, and the Indians’ window might be closing, so it’s as good a time as ever to start adding. Ryu shouldn’t be the only starter on Chicago’s shopping list; the Sox should at add at least two quality arms to team up with Giolito while Dylan Cease, Dane Dunning and Michael Kopech mature.
Chicago has lost their fair share of games in the past three seasons and the fanbase is obviously hungry. The White Sox might have made their best possible move by signing Yasmani Grandal, but they should keep going. If any team is ready to use dollars to convince Ryu to leave L.A., it’s this one.