Teenager handling jump to Majors with aplomb

September 28th, 2019

TORONTO -- Back in Spring Training, 19-year-old was standing outside the Blue Jays’ clubhouse in Dunedin, Fla., when a car pulled up and offered him a ride back to his hotel.

Luciano recognized the driver as a Blue Jays staffer, so he hopped in. The two chatted as they drove, but Luciano, having just made the jump from Rookie League to Major League camp as a surprise Rule 5 pick, couldn’t quite put a name or job title to the man behind the wheel.

It was Ross Atkins, Toronto's general manager.

“He knew that I worked for the Toronto Blue Jays, but he wasn’t exactly sure what my role was,” Atkins said. “From my perspective, he was focused on making an impression on the field with a baseball in his hand and controlling what he could control.”

In that exact moment, Atkins knew the Blue Jays were on to something in Luciano.

The club knew that Luciano was talented, but it’s impossible to predict how a teenager will react to being thrust onto such a big stage so suddenly. Atkins and the young right-hander had spoken several times before, so Atkins quickly clarified things, but interacting with Luciano in a genuine and natural way on that drive left a deep impression.

Thinking back to that car ride, Luciano breaks into his boyish grin and laughs.

“I wasn’t sure. Of course, I was new there. I didn’t know many people,” Luciano said. “I saw him around the complex, but I didn’t know he was the GM.”

Luciano’s season with the Blue Jays is where creativity and reality meet. Plenty of eyebrows were raised at the Rule 5 Draft last December when the Blue Jays selected Luciano, then 18, from the Royals. Those eyebrows raised even higher when, immediately after, Atkins expressed a legitimate belief that Luciano could make this work.

"Our hope is that he’s facing Aaron Judge and facing some of the better hitters in the game,” Atkins said at the time. “What an incredible challenge that would be, and we’d love to see that happen."

Last weekend in New York, Luciano didn’t just face Aaron Judge, he struck him out swinging on three straight sliders.

The Blue Jays had a strong scouting report on Luciano from special assistant to amateur scouting Chuck LaMar -- who has since moved on to the Padres -- and decided that this was a rare opportunity to acquire a young arm with an athletic, repeatable delivery and three pitches that could be at least average Major League offerings. Luciano lasting a full season in the Majors and satisfying the Rule 5 requirements still seemed like a long shot, but he has done it.

“The biggest thing for me is that he’s never been intimidated. He’s never seemed rattled,” Atkins said. “There’s been times where his command or his control haven’t been good enough to be effective, but he’s never been intimidated. That was the one thing that was our biggest concern, because of the youth and what he had done which was, in the grand scheme of things, not much for someone who’s coming onto a stage like this.”

After pitching one perfect inning in Friday night's 6-2 loss to the Rays, Luciano owns a 5.35 ERA over 33 2/3 innings with 24 walks and 27 strikeouts. An elbow sprain kept him out of action for three months, but he plans to play in the Dominican Winter League for Tigres del Licey, which should help to get his workload up to what the Blue Jays had hoped for in 2019.

Luciano is steady and mature, but he also understands the weight of it all. He calls the experience exciting, but also emotional. He’s well ahead of schedule, jumping from Rookie League Burlington -- a city of 50,000 -- to a city of 3 million with the eyes of an entire country on him. But, somehow, not much has changed.

“It’s normal,” Luciano said. “When I was growing up, my mom and family taught me that, regardless of what comes into your life, you’ve got to keep your lifestyle the same.”