For 676 days, from the time he underwent shoulder surgery May 21, 2015, until Monday, Hyun-Jin Ryu resided in limbo within the Dodgers organization. He was either too unsound to pitch or too unreliable to be trusted. He entered this spring still in that state, as a wild card in a crowded field vying for the final spots in the starting rotation.
On Monday, after Ryu gave up three runs on two home runs in five innings of a 5-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox, Dodgers Manager Dave Roberts removed Ryu from shoulder-related purgatory. Barring a setback in the next week, Ryu will break camp as a member of the rotation for the first time since 2014.
"We feel that a healthy Hyun-Jin is a good thing," Roberts said. "We expect him to be one of our five."
Ryu forced his way onto the roster through a combination of health and performance. He has insisted that his body can handle the strain of pitching every fifth day. After two years on the shelf, he probably lacked interest in accepting an invitation to extended spring training in order to sharpen his arsenal. His contract allows him to refuse any minor-league assignment.
The Dodgers also understood how Ryu carved up opposing lineups in 2013 and 2014, when he posted a 3.17 earned-run average. He can still disarm hitters by mixing his offspeed pitches, and his fastball velocity this spring has been steady in the upper 80s.
"I'm definitely healthier than I expected when I came into spring training," Ryu said.
Ryu has a 2.57 ERA this spring. He struck out four batters Monday. White Sox outfielder Melky Cabrera punished him for a hanging breaking ball with a solo shot in the first inning. Three innings later, Ryu gave up a two-run homer on a fastball to second baseman Carlos Sanchez.
Roberts indicated that the team is still debating whether Brandon McCarthy or Alex Wood will be the fifth starter, following Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill and Ryu. Wood will start Tuesday against the Cincinnati Reds. Both McCarthy and Wood will make the 25-man roster, Roberts said. One will pitch in the rotation, the other out of the bullpen.
Wood appears more likely for the bullpen. He pitched in relief while returning from elbow surgery last September. McCarthy has appeared as a reliever in only one outing since 2007.
The opening for Ryu was created, in part, by Scott Kazmir's lingering inability to rediscover the velocity on his fastball and the rhythm of his delivery. The six weeks of spring training were not long enough for him to find answers.
Roberts indicated that the team probably will place Kazmir on the disabled list to start the season due to "something with the hip." Kazmir will have more chances, on either a rehabilitation assignment or in extended spring training, to try to find his prior form.
Kazmir completed three innings Sunday when he was scheduled to pitch five. His fastball rarely exceeded 86 mph, a far cry from the 91 mph velocity he averaged in 2016. Kazmir has mentioned tightness in his left hip as the culprit, although a variety of examinations have been unable to determine the cause of his symptoms.
"We just can't understand why there's no velocity," Roberts said. "I don't know if it's a strength thing. I don't know."
Ryu plans to escape the vortex of rehabilitation that Kazmir will now enter. Ryu appeared in only one major league game the last two seasons. The Dodgers hope he can exceed that number by a significant margin in 2017.
"Ryu kept plugging away," Roberts said. "He's shown he's healthy, and making starts, building his innings up. It just gives us the confidence that he can continue to make quality starts when he gets out there."
Seager will merge Saturday
The Dodgers hope shortstop Corey Seager will meet the club Saturday at Dodger Stadium after staying at Camelback Ranch during the first two games of the Freeway Series. After sitting out because of an oblique injury, Seager wants to maximize his number of at-bats, which he can do in the controlled setting of minor-league games at the complex.
Seager played seven innings in the field and took five at-bats against the White Sox's triple-A affiliate Monday. He hit a home run.
The Dodgers have signed veteran pitcher Justin Masterson to a minor-league contract. He was an All-Star with the Cleveland Indians in 2013 but has not pitched in the majors since 2015, when he posted a 5.61 ERA in 18 appearances for the Boston Red Sox.