TORONTO — Even before Hyun Jin Ryu settled on surgery that will end his season, and perhaps his remaining tenure with the Toronto Blue Jays, beefing up the pitching staff was going to be on the pre-deadline to-do list for GM Ross Atkins.
Now, though, an addition that further insulates the starting rotation has shifted from nice-to-have to must-get, with the insurance policy provided by Ross Stripling exercised and paying out handsomely.
A case can be made that the right-hander’s performance in seven starts over two separate rotation stints thus far has been an upgrade over what Ryu, limited by what Atkins described as a “chronic injury” to his ulnar-collateral ligament, might have delivered.
The value of that type of protection can’t be overstated.
But the combination of Ryu’s loss and Nate Pearson’s latest star-crossed season has eroded the club’s depth to survive another rotation hiccup. And an important consideration is what a reasonable workload for Stripling looks like, given that he’s peaked at 122 innings in the majors, during his 2018 all-star season, and last year logged 101.
Already he’s at 43 innings and with 3½ months of season left, there’s about 100 innings to cover out of that rotation spot. Factor in that there’s no clear sixth starter pounding down the gates at triple-A Buffalo – Thomas Hatch, veteran Casey Lawrence and the intriguing Max Castillo are the leading options while Pearson builds up – and there’s a risk exposure the club needs to address.
“There’s a guy on our roster, there are a couple of guys off our roster that could be alternatives,” Atkins said in describing what the club’s starting depth looks like now. “We can think of it creatively. And then obviously we have to consider deadline opportunities and trade acquisitions that that could bolster our depth there.”
Atkins, unsurprisingly, didn’t tip his hand as to what type of pitcher the club might target — “we do have some flexibility there to think about it in a creative way,” he said — but thinking creatively about a rotation spot isn’t a comfortable place to be for a contender.
Back in the spring, Pearson would have been the obvious answer, but mono delayed the start to his season, he’s still in catch-up mode and durability concerns likely had him on track for some type of bullpen or hybrid role.
He’s worked in two-inning chunks since joining Buffalo on a rehab assignment and Atkins’ reply was “not really,” when asked if the Ryu news might alter how Pearson is rebuilt.
“But that is a very real option, maybe more on the creative route,” Atkins added. “We’ll see. Would rather just go one outing at a time with Nate. Really encouraged by his last one (two shutout innings with three strikeouts June 8 against Worcester) … and we’ll take that one step at a time. We’re not going to change our plan because of the injury to Ryu.”
Bigger picture, though, the Blue Jays are going to have to adjust, which adds a new wrinkle to their deadline plans. Atkins mentioned “depth in areas, complementary skill-sets in others,” as ways to find gains elsewhere on the roster, his vague language both part of the standard deadline subterfuge and an indication of how his roster is positioned.
The signing of Ryu to an $80-million, four-year deal was an important step in the club’s development to this point, signalling to the market a shift from rebuild to aspiring contender and setting the stage for the subsequent signings of George Springer and Kevin Gausman.
Ryu was a Cy Young finalist during the pandemic summer of 2020 — throwing seven shutout innings against the New York Yankees in Buffalo to clinch a post-season berth in the expanded playoffs — and then was the rotation’s glue through the first half of 2021, when the staff was still sorting itself out.
His performance began to ebb in August and his inconsistencies stretched into the season, when he hit the injured list with elbow inflammation after his second outing and then made four more starts before being sidelined again.
Ryu visited with specialist Dr. Neal ElAttrache last week and will undergo surgery Friday that will either be a total revision of the UCL, better known as Tommy John surgery, or a partial repair of the ligament.
According to Atkins, there is no acute injury to the ligament, but rather “a chronic injury over time.”
“Another way to think about is … it’s a stretching of the ligament,” he said, adding later: “He would feel it throughout the course of an outing. So it would tighten up after four innings or so. That also points to the MRI read that it is chronic in nature, that there isn’t an acute injury, but over time that stretching and pulling makes the tightness occur and (causes) loss of dexterity or feel to execute his pitches or really finish them.”
A partial repair would open the possibility of a return next year, while Tommy John would mean the four innings Ryu threw June 1 against the Chicago White Sox were his last with the Blue Jays, as his contract expires at the end of 2023.
Either way, the injury brings his 2022 to a premature close, with some wide-ranging fallout as a result.