LOS ANGELES — On Monday afternoon at one of Dodger Stadium’s private clubs, PR director Joe Jareck stepped to the podium and introduced the newest Dodger starting pitcher, Ryu Hyun-Jin (pronounced Ree-YOO). The South Korean left-hander, who will wear No. 99, looked happy and calm — not the least bit nervous about what lies ahead for him as he tries to transfer his low 90s fastball and devastating change-up to the major leagues. And there’s a good reason for the serenity. At the age of 21, Ryu literally had the weight — and maybe even the lives — of his fellow Korean professional baseball players on his shoulders.
One particular international game illustrates how impervious to pressure Ryu appears to be as he prepares to become the first Korean professional player to step right into the big leagues.
“In the 2008 Olympic Games,” said his agent, Scott Boras, “the South Korean team had to win the gold medal or every professional player on that team would have to leave and go in the military for two years. They wouldn’t be able to continue to play in Korea or the major leagues. (Ryu) was chosen to start. It was a huge game for all the players, and they chose him. The pressure was immense, so you can see that’s he’s experienced big game pitching.” South Korea won the gold, beating Cuba 3-2, with Ryu pitching 8 1/3 innings.
After going through pressure like that at such a young age, the prospects of facing Buster Posey or Giancarlo Stanton will be like a day at the beach for Ryu.
So, the immense Dodgers spending continued Monday via the Korean Professional Baseball League. The Dodger organization — except during the McCourt years — has always been a major presence in the Asian area of the Pacific Rim, doing barnstorming tours while scouting and signing many Asian prospects, including Japan’s Hideo Nomo, the hard-throwing right-hander who became the 1995 National League Rookie of the Year.
And 18 years ago, the Dodgers signed an amateur pitcher named Chan Ho Park, who during that 1994 season, became the first Korean-born player to participate in a major league game.
Park had a moderately successful MLB career, going 124-98 with a 4.36 ERA in a 17-year career, including a 75-49 mark for the Dodgers from 1997-2001. He had a great career in the money department, though, earning $85.4 million from the Dodgers, Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies and New York Yankees. The Rangers made most of that money possible, signing him to a five-year, $66 million free-agent deal when he left the Dodgers after the ’01 season.
With new ownership in place and a revived commitment to scouting in Asia, the Dodgers signed the left-handed Ryu to a deal worth $36 million over six years, including a $5 million signing bonus. He’ll reportedly make $3M, $3.5M and $3.5M in the first three years of the contract and $7 million for each of the final three seasons. According to Dylan Hernandez of the Los Angeles Times, Ryu can opt out of his contract if he pitches 750 innings during the first five years of the deal.
“It’s tough to be able to acquire 25-year old pitchers — especially left-handers with some size to him and some experience to him,” said Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti. “Granted, he hasn’t pitched in the big leagues but he has pitched in the World Baseball Classic and he’s pitched in the Olympics. He’s pitched on a lot of big stages and he’s been successful doing it.”
The 25-year old Ryu — who played for the Hanwha Eagles in South Korea — is a 6-foot-2, 230-pounder who has been clocked in the low to mid-90s. He also reportedly possesses a deadly change-up, which makes him extremely hard to hit. He led the Korean League in strikeouts five times, and was 98-52 with a 2.80 ERA.
The big left-hander says that he was always interested in the Dodgers because of Park being on the team.
“I’ve watched Chan Ho pitch since I was young,” Ryu said through an interpreter. “ I learned how to play watching a lot of Chan Ho’s games; lots of Dodger games. It’s my honor to play for the Dodgers. I’ll do my best to follow in Chan Ho’s footsteps here.”
The Dodgers also had to pay a $25.7 million posting fee to negotiate with Ryu and Boras, so along with the reported $147 million that Zack Greinke received, the Guggenheim Baseball Management group will have spent another $208.7 million to improve their team. They committed nearly $300 million in an Aug. 25 trade, when they acquired first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, outfielder Carl Crawford and pitcher Josh Beckett as the key players in a nine-player deal with the Boston Red Sox. And with the $85 million committed to Andre Ethier, they’ve put up nearly $600 million after purchasing the team for $2.2 billion from the McCourts. This is a group that isn’t afraid to take a chance — or write a big check.