Blue Jays stars ready for 2018

Photo by Conner McTague

Pat Hentgen and Paul Quantrill playing the game "Heads Up!" at the Blue Jays first ever Winter Fest on Jan. 20, 2018. (Left to right) Roemon Fields, Steve Pearce, Vernon Wells, Tim Mayza and Russell Martin, Dan Jansen, Bo Bichette, Jose Cruz Jr. Aledmys Diaz and Danny Barnes.

Toronto Blue Jays players are back in Dunedin, Fla. for spring training, as the team turns it focus to 2018 after a disappointing season.

Coming off of two straight American League Championship Series appearances, expectations were high for the Jays in 2017.

However, it was a season derailed by injuries and inconsistent play throughout the lineup, ultimately leading to a 76-86 record.

One of those players who battled injuries is second baseman Devon Travis, who didn’t play after June 4 following surgery to repair cartilage damage in his right knee, an issue he also dealt with during the 2016 ALCS.

The 26-year-old struggled in April, but hit for an average of .364, an on-base percentage of.373, and a slugging percentage of .646 in May, prior to going down.

Travis has been plagued by injuries throughout his three-year career, playing 213 out of a possible 486 games. He calls it frustrating to be out of the lineup so much but says he’s going into 2018 feeling the best he ever has.

“I just can’t wait for the day where I don’t have to answer many questions about my health,” said Travis, at the team’s inaugural Winter Fest at the Rogers Centre in January. “I’m just excited to get to that point in my career.”

Travis isn’t the only player looking to rebound, though. Pitcher Aaron Sanchez was limited to eight starts last season due to recurring blister issues on his throwing hand. Shortstop Troy

Tulowitzki missed 96 games due to quad and ankle injuries.

The Jays made it a focus to improve their middle infield depth in wake of Travis’ and Tulowitzki’s durability woes by acquiring infielders Aledmys Diaz from the St. Louis Cardinals and Yangervis Solarte from the San Diego Padres.

One of the few players who remained healthy last season is pitcher Marcus Stroman.

Coming off a poor 2016, the right-hander rebounded in a big way in 2017 going 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA and 164 strikeouts in 201 innings while winning the Gold Glove for fielding prowess among pitchers.

The 200-innings is a notable number for pitchers and those who can consistently reach it are considered among the game’s elite, which Stroman hopes to become.

“I want to become one of the top two, three, four, five pitchers in the game. I want to be the best,” he added with his usual confident demeanour.

“And I think I will be one of the top, best pitchers in the game within the next few years. One hundred per cent. There’s not a single doubt in my head.”

What’s interesting about Stroman is he doesn’t need to strike out 200 batters a season like Cleveland ace Corey Kluber to be effective.

He is primarily a pitch-to-contact pitcher, evidenced by Fangraphs, which indicate 62 per cent of balls put into play off Stroman are hit on the ground.

That number led all major league pitchers.

Unlike a power pitcher like Kluber, who averaged almost 12 strikeouts per nine innings a year ago, Stroman fanned just 7.4 batters per nine innings.

Though Stroman said he wants to improve his strikeout numbers.

Stroman, the player fans have come to love, gave an emphatic answer when asked if he should be the Jays’ opening day starter on March 29 against the New York Yankees at Rogers Centre, where they will also retire the number of the late Roy Halladay, who died when his single-engine plane crashed off the Gulf of Mexico on Nov. 7, 2017.

“Absolutely, 100 per cent,” he said. “I’ll strike out (Aaron) Judge, (Giancarlo) Stanton, all of them. I ain’t scared.”