Blue Jays make a dream come true in giving Nathan Lukes Opening Day spot

Shi Davidi breaks down the 2023 Blue Jays and how they've improved with major offseason changes, Toronto's biggest questions, as well as how the rule changes will affect the game ahead of the MLB season.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — This time last year, Nathan Lukes was a little bummed out. He’d just put together an impressive spring training, only to be cut on the last day of the Grapefruit League schedule with Gosuke Katoh earning the final spot on the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster instead.

Disappointed, Lukes went to triple-A Buffalo and put together the best season of his minor-league career, with a .285/.364/.425 batting line, 11 home runs and 20 steals in 23 attempts. But still, that wasn’t enough to earn the 28-year-old a shot at the major leagues.

So when manager John Schneider tapped him on the shoulder Monday afternoon, Lukes wasn’t sure what to think. He’d put together another strong spring, hitting .286 with plus speed and defence, but with Otto Lopez and Vinny Capra also competing for the Blue Jays’ final bench job, he could just as easily imagine another assignment at triple-A.

Only this time, he was the one getting the call to the major leagues.

“I’ve seen plenty of people (get called up), and I’ve always dreamed of having it happen to me,” Lukes said. “And sure enough, it happened. I can’t really tell you how I feel. I’m probably still going to not going to feel it until Opening Day.”

The decision to roster Lukes highlighted a busy day on which the Blue Jays wrapped up their Grapefruit League schedule before heading to St. Louis, where they’ll work out Wednesday before playing their season opener Thursday. Jose Berrios pitched in parts of five innings and Yusei Kikuchi struck out six to close out spring training as emphatically as he started it.

[brightcove videoID=6323552731112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“Spring and the season is totally different,” Kikuchi said. “I want to continue to (pitch well), but I don’t want to say ‘maintain.’ I want to try to improve everything.”

Schneider also confirmed that Zach Pop made the Blue Jays as the final reliever in the bullpen.

Meanwhile, Jay Jackson, who’d been released from his contract over the weekend, agreed to terms on a split contract that would pay him over $1.5 million in the majors or close to $500,000 in the minors. With the likes of Jackson, Nate Pearson and Yosver Zulueta in the triple-A bullpen, the Blue Jays have enviable depth in the bullpen.

Beyond the pitching, the decision to roster Lukes was most intriguing Tuesday. Lopez and Capra, the other contenders for the job, are now slated to start their seasons at triple-A Buffalo after being optioned and reassigned, respectively.

In Lukes, the Blue Jays add a left-handed hitter with speed and the versatility to play all three outfield positions. A seventh-round pick of the Guardians in 2015, Lukes has yet to make his MLB debut despite playing 287 games at the triple-A level.

“We trust him in the outfield,” Schneider said. “We trust him on the bases. Obviously, his at-bats have been great. But the way we’re built and constructed right now, it’ll be in a probably here-and-there role to start. But just excited that he’s got the chance at the major leagues.”

[brightcove videoID=6323554306112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Over the course of 111 games for the Buffalo Bisons last year, he made most of his starts in centre field — his favourite of the three — while also playing regularly in the corners.

Asked to describe his skill-set, he pointed first to his effort level.

“I just grind it out constantly,” he said. “I don’t think I’m an easy out, whether that’s in the batter’s box or on the bases. I just go out there and play hard.”

As a member of the Blue Jays’ bench, Lukes could be called on to play defence late in games or pinch run for the likes of catcher Alejandro Kirk and first baseman Brandon Belt late in games, Schneider said. Yet chances are, he won’t start many games over Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and George Springer.

“We feel comfortable with him,” Schneider said. “It’s not so much base stealing, but also scoring from first on the double or scoring from second on a hit. Things like that and giving K.K. and George a (breather).”

As for Lopez, the Blue Jays were impressed by his showing this spring even if he didn’t make the team.

[brightcove videoID=6323532795112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“There was nothing more he could have done to break with us,” Schneider said. “When we start this whole thing at the beginning of camp, I tell the guys it’s going to take contributions from everyone in the room. He’s going to be part of that at some point as well.”

With Tuesday’s loss to the Phillies, the Blue Jays wrapped up a spring that can only be described as successful. Sure, there were mishaps — an injury scare for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and multiple arm issues for Mitch White, for instance — but between Kikuchi’s dominant spring and the overall health of the roster, this is pretty close to how the Blue Jays would have drawn it all up.

Now, it’s on to St. Louis where further challenges await. But with a talented roster in place and further reinforcements on the way, there’s no reason the Blue Jays shouldn’t be considered one of the American League’s elite teams as spring training comes to an end.

As Kikuchi said: “We have raw talent and, I believe, one of the best teams in the world.”


The Blue Jays have until noon on March 30 to submit their roster to the commissioner’s office. When they do, here’s how it’ll look:

Catchers (2)

Danny Jansen (R)

Alejandro Kirk (R)

Infielders (5)

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (R)

Brandon Belt (L)

Santiago Espinal (R)

Bo Bichette (R)

Matt Chapman (R)

Outfielders (4)

George Springer (R)

Daulton Varsho (L)

Kevin Kiermaier (L)

Nathan Lukes (L)

Utility (2)

Whit Merrifield (R)

Cavan Biggio (L)

Starting Pitchers (5)

RHP Alek Manoah

RHP Kevin Gausman

RHP Chris Bassitt

RHP Jose Berrios

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

Relief Pitchers (8)

RHP Jordan Romano

RHP Yimi Garcia

RHP Erik Swanson

LHP Tim Mayza

RHP Anthony Bass

RHP Adam Cimber

RHP Trevor Richards

RHP Zach Pop

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.