Would Nathan Lukes be better served playing every day in the minor leagues?
By Edward Eng
Let’s take a moment and think about carefully what it must feel like being Toronto Blue Jays’ outfielder Nathan Lukes. You had worked your butt off for the past decade day in and day out trying to make the big leagues. Now, you finally got your chance to show everyone what you’re made of and what you can do by making the Jays’ 2023 Opening Day roster. But three pinch running assignments later, you were sent back down to the minors in favor of a waiver claim, who himself lasted only a total of six at-bats in the Major Leagues before being sent to the minors, too.
Guess what? You get called back up on April 17th as a result and you believe, “this finally is my chance now, right?” However, after almost a month’s time has elapsed since then, you have been given a total of just four pinch running assignments, four defensive replacement assignments and one start. Folks, that appears to be the life being the 26th man on the Jays’ roster.
Back in 2020, MLB implemented the new rule of expanding the regular season roster limit from 25 to 26, with hopes to provide extra roster flexibility and usage for the teams. Currently, the rule limits the number of pitchers that a team can have on their roster at one time to 13, leaving the other 13 spots to starting lineup hitters and bench players. For the Jays in 2023, their extra bench players usage include: one of Alejandro Kirk or Danny Jansen (depending on who was starting, since they are a platoon at catcher), Santiago Espinal (backup infielder), Cavan Biggio (backup utilityman), and Lukes (backup outfielder). Although not stated, it’s evident that Lukes was unofficially the 26th man on the roster, based on his usage and amount of playing time given.
To sum up Lukes’ accomplishments to date in the majors, he has a total of six plate appearances in ten games, scoring two runs, with one walk and two strikeouts for a batting average of .000, OPS of .167, and OPS+ of -47. On the plus side, at least he hasn’t made an error in 15.2 innings played and comes as advertised as a good defender with speed. One should also note that Lukes was coming off a minor league season in which he performed admirably, hitting .285 with 11 home runs, 61 RBI, 20 stolen bases and an OPS of .789. Even in his short minor league stint this year in 2023, he went 8-for-24 with one home run, six RBI, one stolen base, five walks and only one strikeout for a .333 average and .948 OPS.
Seeing how Espinal, and Biggio are all currently struggling, it’s surprising that Lukes haven’t been given more opportunities to start in games this season. One would have expected, for instance, this week when right fielder George Springer was out of the lineup for two games due to illness, that Lukes would get at least a start in right field for one of the games as his replacement. Unfortunately, it was given to Whit Merrifield in one game, with the struggling Espinal to cover second base, and then to the struggling Biggio in the second game, with Merrifield to cover second base. This begs the question, could Lukes’ roster spot be used in a much better way than what we have seen so far?
As a result, one of the following should be done, or at least tested out, to fully maximize the 26th man usage. Lukes should be given at least the chance to start once or twice a week to see what he could really bring to the team. If he does well, it would allow for a rotation of rest days for the starting outfielders (in particular, for the struggling Springer) and keep everyone fresh so that they can play to their optimal abilities.
If not, then the 26th man on the roster should go to someone that has a strong bat so that the Jays could use for key pinch hitting situations late in games. It’s no coincidence that the Jays have only pinch hit 12 times this year and with only one hit to show for it, because if the bench consists mainly of the likes of Jansen, Biggio, Espinal and Lukes, it’s not going to scary anyone, nor are they expected to do much damage.
Otherwise, one can expect more non-effective usage of that spot in the near future, as long as manager John Schneider remains stubborn at the helm and doesn’t make any adjustments.