Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk, left to right, pitcher John Axford, first baseman Justin Smoak, pitcher J.A. Happ, outfielder Kevin Pillar and catcher Russel Martin arrive at Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla., on Wednesday, February 21, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

An early report from Jays’ spring training–a little bit of good, a little bit of bad

The Toronto Blue Jays opened their Grapefruit League schedule Friday in Florida.

In most years, that might prompt some poetic waxing about the joys of spring training that will lead to pennant fever.

This year: not so much.

Potential Blue Jays ace Aaron Sanchez shows catcher Russell Martin his grip during batting practice at spring training in Dunedin, Fla. If they Jays are to contend in 2018, Sanchez will have to pitch blister-free, something he failed to do last season when he was able to win only one game after winning 15 in 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Looking back on the 2017 season, one can only wince.

The Jays managed to win just one of their first 10 games and never recovered, remaining in the American League East basement until the season’s final weekend.

They finally finished fourth, at 75-87, a dismal 18 games out of first place.

Even flipping the results of those first 10 games, the Jays would have finished at 84-78, six games over .500, the very benchmark of mediocrity.

It was a killer season for Canadian baseball fans who had primed themselves for a whole lot more, especially after the Jays managed to turn on all of Canada with a couple of exciting runs that extended into the playoffs in 2015 and 2016.

Blue Jays starting pitcher Marcus Stroman was all smiles during live batting practice at spring training in Dunedin, Fla. this week despite losing his arbitration case earlier this month. The Jays will need Stroman to take another giant step forward if they hope to contend in the tough American League East.

There were a lot of reasons for the nosedive.

Start with management’s bonehead decision to let slugger Edwin Encarnicion get away to Cleveland in free agency and baseball’s grim reaper finally catching up with the long-time face of the franchise, slugger Jose Bautista, who likely has played the last game of his terrific major league career.

Most of all, it was a bunch of bad luck, resulting in injuries to key players: most prominently, to hoped-for ace Aaron Sanchez, who fell from 15 victories in 2016 to one last season, and the shortstop-second base combination of Troy Tulowitzki and Devon Travis.

Throw in nagging injuries to slugger Josh Donaldson, who didn’t get cranking until the season’s final two months and to catcher Russell Martin, who saw his production drop drastically and, well, those ugly stats listed earlier come as no surprise.

So now it starts again in Florida and in another month–for real.

It’s still too early to know what will happen of course, but a few days of spring training is still enough time to get a preliminary read on things–at least on Sanchez, Tulowitzki and Travis, all of whom will be keys to any success the Jays might garner this season.

Richard Griffin, the Toronto Star’s baseball columnist, is with the team in Florida.

I spoke to him by phone on Friday.

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