Blue Jays have effectively been playing a man short all season
Toronto is forced by rule to have four position players on their bench, but one of them has been parked there all year with no role or production.
The Toronto Blue Jays enter their Monday offday with MLB's sixth-best offence by wRC+ and eighth-best position-player group by fWAR — an impressive feat for a team that's essentially been playing shorthanded.
It's tough to say exactly what kind of production a team should expect from its 13th position player, but it's more than Toronto has gotten. That's not a shot at the talent of rookie Nathan Lukes, who is a total unknown at the MLB level, but a statement about the fact this club is simply not using the last man on its bench.
With Whit Merrifield's strong play of late locking him into an everyday role, the team's bench consists of whichever catcher is taking a break, Cavan Biggio, Santiago Espinal, and Lukes. The difference between the first three players and the last one is that they get into ball games, and Lukes doesn't.
If we chart the production and usage of the Blue Jays' 13th man in 2023 it looks something like this:
March 30 to April 6 - Nathan Lukes (3 GP, 0 GS, 0 PA)
April 7 to April 17 - Jordan Luplow (4 GP, 2 GS, 7 PA with a .000/.143/.000 line)
April 18 to May 8 - Nathan Lukes, again (6 GP, 1 GS, 6 PA with a .000/.167/.000 line)
That means that an entire roster spot on the Blue Jays — 3.8% of the team — has contributed two walks and no hits, starting fewer than 10% of the club's games.
While the expectations for an end-of-the-bench player should be low, the Blue Jays are cruising under that bar. They had a similar issue last season when Zack Collins rode the bench for weeks at a time as the team's third catcher — but in that case he was at least facilitating the deployment of Alejandro Kirk and Danny Jansen in the same lineup. You'd be hard-pressed to identify something that Lukes is currently doing that helps the Blue Jays win.
That doesn't mean he's incapable of contributing, but it's impossible to tell if he never plays.
By not using him the Blue Jays are sending a message about where they stand on that matter, which is fair. They know more about the rookie than anyone else, and it's not like his minor-league track record indicates that MLB stardom is in his future. It would be foolish to passionately call for more at-bats for a player FanGraphs' ZiPS projection system has pegged for a .246/.304/.354 line.
It's also nonsensical to have a totally unused roster spot accumulating cobwebs on a competitive team.
The fact the Blue Jays have been unable to find someone who can perform a role of any kind is a bit of a head-scratcher — even if it can be difficult to develop bench guys internally.
When a player shows promise you'd usually rather give them everyday at-bats in the minors than waste development time by having them playing sparingly in the bigs. That said, the waiver wire is always churning, and there's a large market of veteran players available for little to nothing via trade over the course of the season.
Are you likely to find a star on the scrap heap? Absolutely not. Could you find a player that you'd occasionally want to give an at-bat to? You'd think so.
For instance, the Blue Jays don't have great options to pinch hit for Brandon Belt or Kevin Kiermaier against tough southpaws late in games. A dart-throw veteran might be able to help with that.
If you want to get creative you could give a shot to an extreme pinch running specialist in the Terrance Gore mold. Billy Hamilton just joined the Chicago White Sox to do just that.
Every roster spot on an MLB team is an asset. That applies to the last man on the bench, even if it's far from a franchise-defining role. The Blue Jays may getting by fine without even a negligible contribution from their 13th man, but having Lukes occupy a spot and never play is wasteful.
Bringing in Luplow in mid-April to see if he had a contribution to make was a good move even if it didn't work out. The Blue Jays would be wise to take another swing.