Dodgers’ Ryu Hyun-jin eyes return to rotation at start of season

January 11, 2016
Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers speaks to reporters at Incheon International Airport on Jan. 11, 2016. (Yonhap)

Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers speaks to reporters at Incheon International Airport on Jan. 11, 2016. (Yonhap)

By Yoo Jee-ho

INCHEON, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) — Recovering from a shoulder operation last year, South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin of the Los Angeles Dodgers said Monday he is eying a return to the rotation at the start of the new season.

Ryu left for the United States Monday to resume his rehab from the May operation to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He’d returned home on Nov. 14 to continue his rehab and also spent about two weeks in Los Angeles for throwing sessions before coming home again.

With the Dodgers’ pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to spring training on Feb. 19, Ryu said there should be plenty of time for him to get ready for the 2016 season.

“My rehab has been going well and I’ve been taking each step without a problem,” Ryu told reporters gathered at Incheon International Airport. “I think I should be able to get in good enough shape to be ready for spring training.”

Ryu won 14 games in each of his first two big league seasons, along with a 3.14 ERA, 293 strikeouts and 78 walks in 344 innings. He tossed 192 innings in 2013 but was limited to 152 innings in 2014 while battling shoulder issues.

He was shut down after one preseason appearance last year and didn’t make any regular season start.

Ryu said he could be ready to pitch in preseason games, but he has set his sights on a bigger goal.

“If I throw in the bullpen and continue to work hard, I may be able to pitch in preseason,” he said. “But I will try not to rush things too much. My biggest goal this year is to join the rotation at the beginning of the season and stay there until the end of the season. I haven’t set any statistical goals for myself.”

In addition to throwing work, Ryu said he’d been “running on a regular basis” to stay fit and added, “I’ve never worked harder to prepare for a season than this time.”

Ryu, 28, had Tommy John surgery in 2004 as a high school standout to repair a torn ligament elbow. While many pitchers successfully return to form after Tommy John, shoulder labrum operations have had decidedly mixed results.

Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling are the two highest-profile success stories. Clemens won six of his seven Cy Young Awards after his surgery, while Schilling suffered a slight tear in 1995 and returned to enjoy the best stretch of his career.

On the other hand, Mark Mulder and Mark Prior, former All-Stars and Cy Young hopefuls, were never the same after their operations.

Ryu is under contract until 2018. He made $4.83 million in 2015 and will get $7.83 million in each of his next three seasons. He can opt out and become a free agent after the 2017 season if he reaches 750 innings from 2013 to 2017. After throwing zero innings in 2015, Ryu now needs to pitch more than 400 innings in 2016 and 2017 to activate that clause.

The Dodgers have had a busy offseason and their starting rotation has undergone a major makeover. Gone is the former No. 2 starter Zack Greinke, who signed a free agent deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks after leading the majors with a 1.66 ERA in 2015. The Dodgers have since acquired All-Star left-hander Scott Kazmir and then Japanese starter Kenta Maeda.

Brett Anderson, who filled in for Ryu last season as the No. 3 starter, rejected multiyear offers from other clubs to take the Dodgers’ qualifying offer and remain in the rotation. With three-time Cy Young Winner Clayton Kershaw, Kazmir, Anderson and Ryu, the Dodgers can have up to four southpaws in their rotation this year, with Maeda being the only right-hander in the mix.

Ryu said he’s looking forward to teaming up with Maeda — the two-time winner of the Eiji Sawamura Award, presented to the best pitcher in the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) — and helping the Dodgers win another National League West title.

The presence of Ryu and Maeda harkens back to the 1990s when Park Chan-ho of South Korea and Hideo Nomo of Japan fronted the Dodgers’ rotation. In 1997, Park and Nomo tied for team lead with 14 wins apiece. Nomo topped the club with 233 strikeouts, followed by Park with 166.

“Hopefully, we’ll stay healthy all season and help the team win the division,” Ryu said. “I remember Park and Nomo both had good seasons with the Dodgers, and I hope we can duplicate that.”

Ryu said losing Greinke won’t hurt the Dogers too much thanks to some key offseason acquisitions.

“We’ve brought in some good pitchers and I think our hitters will also do their part,” Ryu added. “We’ve won the division the past three years and I don’t think things will change too much.”