As elbow rehab advances, Ryu wants to finish what he started

March 20th, 2023

LAKELAND, Fla. -- It’s been three years since three words reintroduced the Blue Jays to the rest of the league: .

Those were the early days of the era the Blue Jays still stand in, when the debuts of a young core with famous last names eased the blow of a 67-95 season. Ryu represented the necessary next step, spending for star talent that would show this young core the way and win alongside them.

The Korean Monster brought with him a new reality. In his first season, the COVID-shortened 2020, Ryu posted a 2.69 ERA and pitched the Blue Jays into their first postseason appearance since '16. Since those ahead-of-schedule heroics, though, Ryu pitched to a 4.55 ERA over 37 starts before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June of last year.

Now, nine months later and in the final year of his four-year, $80 million contract, Ryu wants to finish what he started.

“My goal, my ideal date and time that I have set up for myself is sometime in mid July,” Ryu said through a club interpreter. “I’m going to try to rehab myself to get back to being able to compete at that level by that time. Hopefully our team has a playoff chance and I can play through October with the guys.”

Ryu has ramped up his rehab alongside his Blue Jays teammates this spring. He’s in the clubhouse each morning, a towering iced coffee in one hand, smiling and chatting. His recovery has been challenging mentally, but his history has helped build resilience. In 2015, Ryu underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum. Tommy John is more common with a very high rate of return, so Ryu’s mentality all along is: “I know I can come back.”

Hyun Jin Ryu waves to teammates as he arrives at 2023 Spring Training camp in Dunedin, Fla.

Lately, he’s been throwing on flat ground, getting out to 90 and 120 feet. At some point in April, he hopes to throw his first bullpen session, a major milestone in his recovery that only comes when his elbow is 100% ready to begin the return to pitching.

“Being with the guys just brings so many positive vibes and helps me to be more motivated,” Ryu said. “In the next couple of weeks, the guys are going to be gone. I’m just going to stay focused and not get laid back. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing mentally and carry on from there.”

The Blue Jays won’t rush this. There will be a loose date in mind, of course, but that’s a moving target. They’ll be more focused on short-term boxes that need checking, moving from week to week with Ryu, but all of the signs to this point are extremely encouraging.

“You see him walking around here and he’s in a good place,” said pitching coach Pete Walker. “He misses competing and being part of the regular rotation, but I think he envisions himself being ready at some point this season to contribute at the Major League level. He’s determined to do so. I think he still wants to show the people in Canada what he came here to do.”

This rotation looks nothing like the one Ryu led in 2020. was pitching at the Blue Jays’ Alternate Site. was with the A’s, with the Twins, with the Mariners and -- who kept his strong spring going in a 5-0 win over the Tigers on Monday -- was with the Giants. The Blue Jays have had to build their '23 rotation under the assumption Ryu won’t be part of it. That’s not what they believe, but it’s how a front office needs to operate to protect themselves. Anything Ryu can give them in '23 will be a bonus.

By July -- or August, or September -- something will have changed. Injuries inevitably happen and performances are hard to predict, even with established veterans, as we learned in 2022 with Berríos. Along with No. 1 prospect Ricky Tiedemann potentially being an option, Ryu’s return could be a blessing by that time. Besides, this is the exact type of team the Blue Jays envisioned Ryu someday pitching on.

“I don’t think we can even call ourselves a young team anymore,” Ryu said. “These guys have gotten two, three, four years under their belt now. They’ve got the experience. They know what they’re doing. The guys know what to do instead of being taught what to do.”

Soon, Ryu will finish his rehab in bullpens, back fields and Minor League stadiums, far from the glamor he’s earned in the KBO and MLB. It will all be worth it, though, for one more shot.