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Dodgers Spend Starter Money on Ryu Hyun-Jin

One move over the weekend is getting all the negative attention today, but there was another big acquisition that might have an even slimmer chance of working out for the organization in question: The Dodgers signed Korean lefty Ryu Hyun-Jin to a six-year, $36-million contract. When added to his $25.7 million posting fee, that outlay means that the Dodgers are locked into more than $60 million for a pitcher that hasn’t yet touched the minor leagues. That’s starter money, and it’s unclear that Ryu is a lock to be a starter. But, yah, it’s only money… right?

The comp that comes up most of the time is David Wells. And hey, it’s not a terrible comp. Wells had a four-pitch mix, threw with his left hand, didn’t have plus-plus velocity, and oh yeah, he was “stout” and quirky. Ryu checks in over 220 pounds even though he’s two inches shorter than Wells, and tales of his velocity have begun to tail off, up from he ‘maxes out at 95‘ to he ‘sits 88-91‘ from Keith Law most recently.

Of course, Ryu’s changeup is his best pitch, while Wells was known for his curveball. You can scout Ryu yourself with this youtube playlist put together by Dan at MyKBO.net if you like (The video embedded below probably has the best angle). And it’s a little early to say that Ryu has a four-pitch mix like wells. He throws four pitches, yes, but by most accounts, his slider is not exciting and his curveball may just be a lefty-on-lefty type of pitch that won’t solve a platoon issue if righties like his changeup.

See where this is going? Doubt. If you are as friendly as possible to the Dodgers, you still can’t erase that overwhelming sense of doubt that surrounds the confident, smiling young Korean. Let’s say you use $5.5 million per win this season, and then, as you eye that $1.5 billion in new TV money coming towards the existing $3 billion in player salaries, you say that the price per win will rocket forward 25% in 2014. Settle back in around 10% inflation, and you get dollars per win that look like this over the next few years: $5.5, $6.9, $7.6, $8.3, $9.2, $10.1. Ryu would still have to be worth over a win and a third per season to be worth $60 million, and that’s a feat only ten relievers have managed in the last six years.

If he’s a starter, the bar lowers precipitously. 108 starters have accrued seven and a half wins over the last six years, including young (non-ace) lefties like Jon Niese and Derek Holland. Barry Zito was close!

Asking the 25-year-old Ryu to be better than the post-peak Zito doesn’t seem like much, but remember back to the Korean’s arsenal. We “know” he has two pitches, and we hope he has three. Let’s call him a prospect — he hasn’t pitched in the bigs yet, after all — and then we also know that his bust rate would then be over 50%, even if he is immediately a top-ten prospect here.

It’s fair to say that Korea might be a step above American Double-A ball, but it’s also almost impossible to get a decent sample size for translations. There are only five current major leaguers that played in the KBO before, and Travis Blackley was the most prominent of the group. Blackley struck out 16% of the batters he saw with Oakland last year, and he struck out 21% of the batters he saw in Korea. Ryu struck out 24% of the batters he saw over his career. He was about a five-win pitcher by FIP last season. This is not a Yu Darvish situation.

Ryu is in his peak, most likely. He’s been healthy most of the years he’s pitched (even after Tommy John surgery in high school), and he hasn’t thrown gaudy innings totals. He has two good pitches and is well regarded by scouts in his region, and the curveball could be a good enough third pitch to make him a starter in the bigs. He might also be seventh on the current Dodgers’ rotation depth chart (Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Josh Beckett, Aaron Harang, Chris Capuano, Chad Billingsley with Ted Lilly and Stephen Fife still kicking around), so he has some hurdles to overcome. If he falls just a little short, he’ll have to be better than Sean Marshall in the pen to make this contract worth while.

And though there are those that contend that the Dodgers are playing with monopoly money — their local television contract does outstrip the nearest contender by nine figures — that depth chart should tell you something. At some point, roster spots begin become scarce. Even the richest teams don’t want a $60 million man pitching to lefties in the seventh inning.

Thanks to Mike Petriello for this post, which was a helpful starting spot for me.