By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Dec. 10 (Yonhap) -- Now that he has signed his first Major League Baseball (MLB) contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, South Korean pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin faces a series of on-field challenges.
The 25-year-old left-hander reached a six-year contract worth US$36 million with the Dodgers. He was posted by his South Korean club, the Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), last month, and the National League (NL) club earned the exclusive negotiating rights by submitting a bid of $25.7 million in a silent auction.
After some posturing and hard-balling through the local media between the two sides, the Dodgers awarded the seven-time KBO All-Star with the third-largest contract for a posted foreign player.
Before signing Ryu, the Dodgers also acquired former Cy Young Award winner Zack Greinke to a six-year deal for $147 million, the highest ever for a right-hander. These two deals will bring the Dodgers' 2013 payroll to at least $225 million, a major league record.
For Ryu, a lucrative, multi-year deal brings great responsibility.
Ryu and the rest of the Los Angeles pitchers and their catchers will report to the team's spring training on Feb. 13 next year in Arizona, with position players joining them four days later. Their 34-game preseason starts on Feb. 24 against the Chicago White Sox.
The Dodgers are paying him the kind of money reserved for a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, and Ryu has the task of living up to that expectation in his first big league season.
In his seven KBO seasons, Ryu went 98-52 with a 2.80 ERA and 1,238 strikeouts in 1,269 innings. He made a historic debut out of high school in 2006, becoming the first player to win the MVP and the Rookie of the Year in the same season after going 18-6 with a 2.23 ERA and a rookie record 204 strikeouts.
He led the KBO in strikeouts five times and has generally been one of the league's most dominant pitchers.
The level of play in the KBO has vastly improved over the years, but the competition still isn't close to what Ryu will be facing in the majors.
KBO teams play 133 games a season, whereas MLB clubs play 162. Ryu has never made more than 30 starts in his Korean career, but if he stays healthy and gets his regular turn in the rotation, Ryu could be in for up to 33 starts in the majors in 2013.
Ryu has been a fairly durable pitcher, having averaged more than 181 innings per KBO season, but he will probably top 200 innings in the majors, something he hasn't done in South Korea since 2007.
Long road trips will be another major change for Ryu, who has never had to fly while in the KBO. When they play teams on the East Coast, the Dodgers will have to fly across three time zones and there will be more than a handful of red-eye flights in and out of those cities.
The rotund Ryu is listed in the KBO media guide as 187 centimeters and 98 kilograms, but he'd be the first one to admit he weighs more. The Eagles' trainers said in January this year that he checked in at 115 kilograms. Though there have been successful major league starters with similar body types -- namely 2007 American League Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia and three-time All-Star David Wells, who won 239 games in 21 seasons -- Ryu would do well to make sure he keeps himself fresh throughout the season.
Despite his big frame, Ryu will probably not overpower major league hitters. He has gone over 150 kilometers (93 miles) per hour with his fastball, but big league hitters feast on fastballs in the low 90s.
Ryu's bread-and-butter is his changeup that drops on the outside corner of right-handed batters, and he will likely have to rely on his guile to fool major league opponents.
The Dodgers have missed the playoffs in their last three seasons. In that span, their NL West division rival, the San Francisco Giants, have won two World Series titles.
Out of 162 games, the Dodgers will play 76 intra-division games, 19 each against the Giants, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres. The NL West is a challenging division for pitchers because it is home to two of the most 'hitter-friendly' parks in the majors -- Coors Field for the Rockies and Chase Field for the Diamondbacks.
Of the Dodgers' division rivals, Colorado, San Francisco and Arizona all ranked among the top six in team batting average and in runs scored in 2012. The Rockies and the Diamondbacks were fifth and sixth in homers.
On the other hand, Ryu will likely enjoy plenty of offensive support, the type of luxury he never enjoyed with the Eagles in the KBO.
The Dodgers acquired a pair of All-Stars, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez and Hanley Ramirez, who can play shortstop and third base, in separate midseason trades last year. They put up solid numbers in their Dodger uniforms and the team will have them for a full season in 2013.
Gonzalez and Ramirez are joined by incumbent stars such as outfielders Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, the two sluggers almost guaranteed to produce big power numbers.
Ryu has been a big-game pitcher all his career. He was an integral part of the South Korean national teams that won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and finished runner-up at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
In Beijing, he threw a complete game shutout against Canada in the group stage. He was the winning pitcher in the gold medal contest against Cuba, giving up two runs in 8 1/3 innings. At the 2009 WBC, pitching in five games, Ryu had a 2.57 ERA.
When he met the U.S. media for the first time last month, Ryu expressed confidence that he will succeed in the big leagues.
"Obviously, there's pressure in all levels of baseball," Ryu said then. "But from my experiences in Korea, I have no doubt I could succeed in the U.S."
The Dodgers, under a new ownership group led by the Los Angeles Lakers legend Magic Johnson, have shown this winter that they mean business. Ryu will be pitching under lofty expectations, and his strong self-confidence will be a major asset going forward.
"Just because I am about to reach the majors, I don't think it will be necessary to develop new pitches," Ryu said last month. "American hitters are stronger (than Koreans), but with enough practice, I think I can handle them."
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