The Korea Herald


Ryu Hyun-jin determined to take Eagles to KBO postseason in return from MLB

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 23, 2024 - 09:10

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Hanwha Eagles pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin walks in a hallway at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, to prepare for a trip to Okinawa, Japan, for spring training on Friday. (Yonhap) Hanwha Eagles pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin walks in a hallway at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, to prepare for a trip to Okinawa, Japan, for spring training on Friday. (Yonhap)

Having returned home to begin another chapter in his illustrious career, South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin said Friday he will try to push his new team back to the postseason.

Ryu reunited with the Hanwha Eagles in the Korea Baseball Organization by agreeing to an eight-year, 17 billion-won ($12.8 million) contract Thursday. By the total amount, Ryu is the highest-paid player in KBO history.

Ryu first pitched for the Eagles from 2006 to 2012, before spending the next 11 years in Major League Baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Toronto Blue Jays. While Ryu was gone, the Eagles made the postseason only once, in 2018. They finished in last place five times over those 11 seasons, and the 36-year-old left-hander said he wants to change the narrative right away.

"I'd love to play in the postseason. That's my primary goal," Ryu told reporters at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, before traveling to Okinawa, Japan, to join the Eagles in spring training. "I want to stay healthy and reach the postseason. I am not thinking of anything else at the moment."

Ryu, who led MLB in ERA in 2019 and finished in the top three in the Cy Young Award voting twice, will give the Eagles an immediate boost. The 36-year-old joins the 20-year-old right-hander Moon Dong-ju, the 2023 KBO Rookie of the Year, plus their two foreign starters, Felix Pena and Ricardo Sanchez, in a deep, well-balanced rotation.

"I think we've signed some veterans in free agency in recent years, and some young players played well last year," Ryu said. "We have a pretty good balance in terms of experience and youth. I think we'll be going into the new season with more confidence."

The Eagles last played in the Korean Series in 2006, when Ryu made KBO history by becoming the first player to win the MVP award and the Rookie of the Year award in the same season. He said he would love to win a Korean Series title before his eight-year deal runs out.

Ryu admitted he was surprised by the Eagles' offer of such a long contract. It's the longest deal in KBO history and will take Ryu into his age-44 season. If Ryu pitches during the final year of this contract, he could become the oldest player ever to suit up in a KBO game.

Former Eagles pitcher Song Jin-woo owns the current mark at 43 years, seven months and seven days. Four players over 40 -- Choo Shin-soo of the SSG Landers, Kim Kang-min of the Eagles, Oh Seung-hwan of the Samsung Lions and Choi Hyoung-woo of the Kia Tigers -- will play this year.

"This eight-year deal gives me a sense of responsibility," Ryu said. "If I do set the record as the oldest player ever, it would be a huge honor. I would feel proud of that accomplishment."

Ryu missed the second half of the 2022 season and the first half of the 2023 season after undergoing and then rehabbing from his second Tommy John elbow reconstructive surgery. Ryu pitched well in his return last year, posting a 3.46 ERA and a 3-3 record in 11 starts for the Blue Jays.

Ryu said he is completely healthy with no lingering issues from the surgery. In ramping up for the new season, Ryu is up to 65 pitches, but he has only thrown indoors so far.

"I'll get to play catch outside for the first time in a while," Ryu said. "If it all goes well, I will go throw in the bullpen right away. If I can stay healthy, I should be able to throw 150 innings this year."

Ryu said he may even be ready to start on Opening Day on March 23 against the defending Korean Series champions, LG Twins.

"I have not yet thrown with 100 percent effort, but being up to 65 pitches at this time of year is pretty good," Ryu said. "I'll see how things go today, and we'll go from there. I feel more comfortable now than this time last year. After Tommy John surgery, the arm starts feeling more comfortable after a couple of years."

Ryu was expected to command some interest in free agency, as a savvy veteran who could help most MLB rotations.

Ryu revealed that he had turned down a multiyear offer from an MLB club because he didn't want to wait too long to return to South Korea.

"If I had taken a multiyear deal, it would have pushed me close to age 40. And it would have been difficult to keep my promise to fans that I would come back to Korea while still healthy," Ryu said. "So I was strongly opposed to the idea of signing for multiple years. At most, I was thinking of signing for one more year in MLB."

When Ryu didn't find any offer to his liking, the Eagles swooped in. Ryu said talks with the Eagles were mostly smooth and swift.

"It means a lot to me to be able to honor my promise that I'd come back healthy," Ryu added.

He thanked his Eagles teammates for welcoming him and said he was looking forward to meeting them. He also couldn't wait to see how youngsters like Moon, one of the hardest throwers in the KBO, perform in person.

"Dong-ju also throws harder than I do. I don't think he needs any advice from me at all in that regard," Ryu quipped. "Maybe I can talk to him about game management. But he has a lot of talent. I don't think there's any other advice I can give him."

Ryu's return should provide a boon for attendance leaguewide. His potential duels against other former major league players will also drive up interest.

The SSG Landers have two former big leaguers: designated hitter Choo Shin-soo and left-hander Kim Kwang-hyun.

Ryu and Choo faced each other once in MLB, but it came during Ryu's rookie season there in 2013.

"It has been a while since I faced Shin-soo," said Ryu, who held Choo hitless in two at-bats and allowed a walk in that lone meeting. "It will probably feel different facing him in Korea."

Back in the late 2000s in the KBO, Ryu and Kim were considered the two best young left-handers in the league. Two years after Ryu won the MVP in 2006, Kim grabbed his own MVP award in 2008.

They never had a regular season clash, though. They were scheduled to start opposite each other once in May 2010 but that game was rained out.

Their major league careers overlapped from 2020 to 2021, but no head-to-head matchup materialized.

"It's going to be a fun experience pitching against him. I am looking forward to it," Ryu said. "But I can't really control that. The weather has to cooperate, and maybe our managers won't us to pitch in the same game."

As he leaves MLB in his rearview mirror, Ryu said he has no regrets.

"I've had every type of surgery a pitcher could have," Ryu said with a wry smile. Before his elbow operation in 2022, Ryu underwent shoulder surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2015 season. "I am just glad to have come back from those operations."

As for his lasting memories, Ryu said, "I'll remember pitching in the World Series (in 2018), throwing complete game shutouts and leading the majors in ERA in 2019. I have a lot of memories." (Yonhap)