(3rd LD) MLB All-Star Ryu Hyun-jin returns to KBO, signs megadeal with ex-team Eagles

Ryu Hyun-jin is coming home. The Hanwha Eagles of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) announced Thursday that they have signed Ryu, a former major league All-Star, to an eight-year contract worth 17 billion won (US$12.8 million). The deal makes him the highest-paid player in South Korea and immediately sent shockwaves through the top domestic league. The Eagles said there are no incentives baked into the contract and all 17 billion won is guaranteed. This is also the longest contract in KBO history, and Ryu, who turns 37 next month, will set the record for the oldest player to suit up in a KBO game if he pitches during the eighth and final year of this deal. Former Eagles pitcher Song Jin-woo holds the current record at 43 years, seven months and seven days. Ryu most likely has finished his Major League Baseball (MLB) career after seven years with the Los Angeles Dodgers and four more with the Toronto Blue Jays. As a Dodger, Ryu was the National League (NL) starter at the All-Star Game in 2019 and was th e runner-up in the NL Cy Young Award voting that same year, when he led MLB with a 2.32 ERA. Ryu first pitched for the Eagles from 2006 to 2012. He was voted the regular season MVP and the Rookie of the Year in his first season, when he led the KBO with 18 wins, 2.23 ERA and a rookie-record 204 strikeouts. Ryu thanked the Eagles for allowing him to return home on such a lucrative deal. "The Hanwha Eagles are the team that allowed me to become the player that I am today," Ryu said in a statement released by the club. "Ever since I left for the majors, I've always thought I would return to the Hanwha Eagles. I've been dreaming of rejoining this team even while I was playing in the majors. I am happy to have kept my word." Ryu is scheduled to travel to Okinawa, Japan, Friday morning to join the Eagles' at their spring training site. He will speak with reporters around 5:30 a.m. at Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, before boarding his flight. Ryu's long contract includes an opt-out, but the Eagle s declined to disclose details per mutual agreement with the player. The Eagles had been expected to offer Ryu 17 billion won over four years. But by spreading out the same amount of money over a longer stretch, the Eagles lowered the annual average salary for Ryu and appeared to have tried to stay under the KBO's salary cap. Last year, the cap was set at just over 11.4 billion won. Teams whose payroll exceeds the cap will be fined. Son Hyuk, general manager for the Eagles, acknowledged that the management had indeed taken the salary cap situation into account when signing Ryu. The cap for this year is also slightly over 11.4 billion won. The Eagles had about 2.9 billion won in cap space before signing Ryu. If they had signed him to a four-year contract as expected, they would have exceeded the cap by well over 1 billion. Son said he was comfortable giving Ryu such a long deal, which will take him well into his 40s. "He's such a good player that we wanted him to be in this league for a long time. We hop e he will pitch for all eight seasons here," Son said. "He's already an iconic athlete. And we wanted to make him an even bigger symbol for Hanwha and Korean baseball." Ryu is the fourth South Korean MLB All-Star to play in the KBO, following pitchers Park Chan-ho and Kim Byung-hyun, and outfielder Choo Shin-soo. During his first Eagles stint, Ryu led the KBO in strikeouts five times and won two ERA titles. He had a 98-52 record with a 2.80 ERA in 190 appearances. The workhorse also topped the KBO in complete games on five occasions. After a successful seven-year run in the KBO, Ryu was posted for MLB clubs ahead of the 2013 season. The Dodgers won the bid for the exclusive rights to negotiate with Ryu by submitting a little over $25.7 million in a silent auction. They then signed the pitcher to a six-year, $36 million contract. Ryu became the first South Korean player to jump from the KBO to MLB. Ryu went 54-33 with a 2.98 ERA in six seasons with the Dodgers. He missed the entire 2015 season with shoulde r injury, and made just one appearance in 2016 before hitting the sidelines with elbow problems. Ryu enjoyed his best season in 2019, when he led MLB with a 2.32 ERA. He was named the National League (NL) starter at the All-Star Game, the first South Korean to be so honored, and finished second in the NL Cy Young Award voting, the highest placement by a South Korean pitcher. He signed a four-year, $80 million contract with the Blue Jays in December 2019, the largest contract awarded to a free agent pitcher in Blue Jays history at the time. In the 2020 season, shortened to 60 games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Ryu finished third in the American League Cy Young Award voting, thanks to a 5-2 record and a 2.69 ERA in 12 starts. He had an up-and-down 2021 campaign, which was followed by the injury-plagued 2022 season, in which he only made six starts before undergoing Tommy John elbow operation. Ryu returned to the mound in August 2023 and pitched to a 3.46 ERA over 11 starts, a solid performance by a 36-yea r-old pitcher coming off his second elbow surgery. After Ryu's deal with Toronto expired following the 2023 season, Ryu was expected to draw some interest in the open market as a useful, savvy veteran starter who could round out the back end of a rotation. Despite being linked to a few clubs, Ryu, a client of the uber-agent Scott Boras, couldn't find a big league deal to his liking. And the Eagles swooped in with an offer he couldn't refuse. The Eagles had remained in touch with Ryu throughout the offseason. Talks picked up pace in recent days, with general manager Son Hyuk openly expressing optimism this week that the Eagles were close to signing the star pitcher. Since Ryu left for the Dodgers after the 2012 season, the Eagles have made the postseason just once in 2018, while finishing in last place five times. Even at his advanced age, Ryu should immediately become one of the KBO's top starting pitchers and should also command huge interest wherever he goes. "I think we'll be good enough to contend th is year, with some new acquisitions and growth of young players," Ryu said. "I will work hard with my teammates to play as late into the season as we can for our fans." Source: Yonhap News Agency