Hyun-Jin Ryu believes he is ready to reclaim his long-lost spot in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting rotation.
The left-hander has made just one start in the past two seasons for the Dodgers, his once-promising career sidetracked repeatedly by arm injuries.
But Ryu has returned to Camelback Ranch this spring with apparent solid health and definite excitement about his future. He threw live batting practice Sunday for the first time in camp, emerging with confidence in his arm after throwing 25 pitches against hitters.
“As a pitcher, I definitely want to be in the starting rotation from Day One, so that’s what I’m planning to do,” Ryu said through a translator. “From the looks of it, I have a lot of confidence that I can make it.”
Ryu is in a competition with perhaps seven pitchers for the final two spots in Los Angeles’ rotation behind Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda and Rich Hill. The Dodgers learned in 2013 and 2014 that Ryu can be an outstanding starter, but he hasn’t been healthy since, forcing the wealthy club to give itself plenty of options.
“Compared to last spring, I feel kind of different,” Ryu said. “I guess it’s fair to say that I feel confident about my body and my health. Last year, because I was coming back from surgery and everything, I might have doubted myself, and maybe that showed through. But during the offseason, I worked really hard, and then because of all the things I put into it, I feel confident in my ability and my body condition.”
Ryu, who turns 30 next month, is ready to recapture the form that made him the first Korean league player to join the majors through the posting system in late 2012.
After his laborious trip back to the mound, Ryu is eager to keep moving forward, but the extended break from competition also has allowed him to reflect on the work necessary just to get to this spot.
“I try to be optimistic,” Ryu said. “Ever since I was 20 years old, there was really no break for me. I kept on pitching as a professional baseball player. But because of the two years (without playing), I really had a chance to look back on my career.”
Ryu was a seven-time All-Star in South Korea, leading the KBO in strikeouts five times, when the Dodgers signed him to a $36 million, six-year deal. He started out splendidly in Los Angeles, winning 14 games in each of his first two big league seasons with 293 strikeouts.
But his shoulder problems began in 2014, and they scuttled his entire 2015 season when he had surgery to repair his labrum. He finally returned to the mound last July 7, but got hammered in 4 2/3 innings against San Diego and didn’t pitch again.
He had elbow surgery last September, but appears to be fully healed. Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, has been eager to see Ryu’s response to his offseason of rehabilitation and training in Korea and Japan.
Manager Dave Roberts wants to see full extension in Ryu’s throws this spring so that the Dodgers know he isn’t subconsciously protecting his repaired arm. Spring training games also will be a key to Ryu’s chances of cracking the rotation.
“Obviously, because I’ve only pitched one game in the last couple of years, there are some question marks around my name,” Ryu said. “Just like 2013, when I first got to the Dodgers, there’s definitely things I need to prove to the organization in order to make it into the starting rotation.”