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Dodgers will take it slowly with pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, whose health could be a key to their season

Dodgers will take it slowly with pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu, whose health could be a key to their season
Hyun-Jin Ryu went28-15 with a 3.17 earned-run average in two seasons with the Dodgers before missing all of 2015. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Forty-four days separate Hyun-Jin Ryu from the regular season, and for a man recovering from shoulder surgery, each day is fraught with peril.

On Thursday, as he watched Ryu complete a 35-pitch, "low-intensity" bullpen session, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts wondered how Ryu would feel 24 hours later. Ryu alleviated those concerns on Friday when he relayed a lack of pain and the normal amount of soreness.

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To approach a low-stakes affair like a light throwing session with such attention reveals the caution with which the Dodgers will handle Ryu this spring. The team intends to pitch him in Cactus League games and hopes he will break camp as a member of the starting rotation. But neither Roberts nor president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman could offer a timeline for Ryu's return to normalcy.

"Emotionally, we all want him to be ready opening day," Friedman said during a lengthy session with reporters as the team's pitchers and catchers reported to Camelback Ranch. "He does. We do. It's just, it's important for us to do it the right way, and do it in in a way that when he comes back, he's back for good."

Ryu, a 28-year-old left-hander from South Korea, delivered a 28-15 record and 3.17 earned-run average during his first two seasons as a Dodger. His presence could help offset the off-season departure of Zack Greinke. But Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery in May to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.

The organization is unlikely to accelerate Ryu's return in aggressive fashion. The Dodgers possess a stockpile of alternate arms. In the eyes of Friedman and Roberts, to risk Ryu's long-term viability in exchange for a short-term benefit would be foolish.

So if Ryu battles an unexpected amount of soreness, he will be rested. If he requires extra days off between sessions, he will receive them. If a cautious route exists, the organization will opt for it.

"We have the luxury that we have depth," Roberts said. "We want him to be right. So there's really no reason. So that's why we're gray with the schedule. There's really no set return date."

The winter reshaped the team's pitching staff. Greinke bolted for Arizona. The Dodgers countered his departure by signing lefty Scott Kazmir and Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda. Those two, along with lefty Brett Anderson, will line up in some order behind three-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw.

The Dodgers became reliant on Kershaw and Greinke last season. When one of those two pitched, the team went 43-22. In all other games, the team finished 49-48.

"I don't think we're going to replace Zack, obviously," Kershaw said. "There might not be another year like he had for a long time. Scott's going to do what he does. I know that's a cliché, but I don't think he's going to try to be Zack.

"Kenta, I don't even know if he knows who Zack is. So that's great. He can come in and be who he is."

Beyond those four, the Dodgers could turn to either Alex Wood or Mike Bolsinger to hold Ryu's place. Wood struggled after joining the Dodgers last summer, but owns a 3.30 ERA across three seasons in the majors. Bolsinger contributed a 3.62 ERA in 21 starts last season. On the farm, top prospects like Julio Urias and Jose De Leon could rise later in the season.

But the Dodgers still hope for a healthy Ryu. Asked if the possibility of Ryu being ready at the start of the season was "low," Friedman referred once more to the unknown.

"We just don't know yet," Friedman said. "Now if he pitches in a game in the beginning of March, the odds are much higher. If he doesn't get into a game until the end of March, much lower."

The coming days will reveal whether Ryu is a likely bet for the season's first week. All pitchers operate on a basic schedule in spring training, building arm strength on a time-tested progression from bullpen work to sessions of live batting practice to in-game action.

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Ryu will turn 29 on March 25. By then, his availability for the start of the season will be less of a mystery. But until then, and on every day beyond, his health will be subject to scrutiny.

"We're just going to keep going with the throwing progression," Friedman said. "Get him off the mound and then get him into games, and see where he's built up to. But we don't have any clear answers at this point."

Follow Andy McCullough on Twitter: @McCulloughTimes

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