Crack open the peanuts and get your scorecards ready, because baseball is back! You might have taken in a Grapefruit League game somewhere across the Sunshine State over the past few weeks, but now it finally counts. The Tampa Bay Rays will open up the 2018 Major League Baseball regular season against division-rival Boston Red Sox on Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field in front of a sold-out crowd. 

A mix of old and new, some veterans and rookies, many fans are expecting the Rays to have a mostly up-and-down 20th anniversary season. And they might just be right in their assessment. The Rays lost a ton of power at the plate, as well as fan-favorites such as All-Star Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., Logan Morrison, ace starter Alex Cobb and of course, third baseman Evan Longoria. 

Let's try and break down the new-look 2018 Tampa Bay Rays, under fourth-year big league manager (and Tampa native) Kevin Cash.

New Faces

C.J. Cron - Acquired in a February trade with the Los Angeles Angels, Cron will spend most of his time playing first base with the Rays. His right-handed bat brings some welcomed pop to the Tampa Bay lineup, as Cron has averaged 23 home runs and 85 RBI in four seasons at the MLB level.

Carlos Gomez - A mid-spring training acquisition, Gomez has played for five other MLB teams in his career and is widely known for his feisty attitude and flair for the dramatic. Most recently a member of the Texas Rangers, Gomez hit three homers for the Rays in a very short spring campaign and his spot in the lineup is still unknown. He will certainly play outfield throughout the season and expect him to hit from either the three-hole or cleanup... and possibly add in a bat flip or two.

Denard Span - A Tampa native grabbed by the Rays in the controversial Longoria trade, many fans and media members close to the organization expected Span to not make this years' squad. But batting .321 in the spring with 11 RBI and three steals will not only secure you a spot on the team, but cement you as a big part of the Rays' goals in 2018. The 34-year old outfielder made his major-league debut way back in 2008 with the Minnesota Twins. 

Joey Wendle - Once a top minor-leaguer in the Cleveland Indians organization, Wendle was traded to the Rays in December and went on to have an impressive Spring, batting nearly .330. The second baseman has a reliable glove and steady bat, but won't likely see a ton of playing time as Brad Miller is expected to get the bulk of starts. 

Pitching Staff

Outside of ace Chris Archer and lefty Blake Snell, here is where you will find most of the Rays' new faces. Making his fourth consecutive opening day start for the Rays, Archer will look for a bounce back 2018 campaign after finishing last season with an ugly 10-12 record and 4.07 earned-run average. Archer did finish third in the American League with 249 strikeouts and will have to continue that pace at the top of the rotation for the Rays. 

Last week, the Rays announced their plans to operate on a four-man rotation throughout the first few weeks or months of the season. However, those plans were dampered when the news of starter Nathan Eovaldi needing arthroscopic surgery came down on Opening Day Eve Wednesday morning. It's the third starting pitcher the Rays have lost this Spring, with top prospects Brent Honeywell and Jose De Leon both having Tommy John surgery in the last month. With the additional bad news, the Rays will surely be forced into more "bullpen days" and/or will have to call up a few Triple-AAA Durham Bulls in the next few days.

Speaking of those Bulls, the Rays shaky 2018 bullpen will consist of many former Durham players with the likes of Jose Alvarado, and rookies Yonny Chirinos and Ryan Yarbrough all playing a large role in the late innings for the Rays this season. 

Final thoughts and predictions

While I don't think anyone should be planning a parade down Central Ave. in Downtown St Petersburg, I absolutely believe the Rays can be competitive and fun to watch in 2018. While they do play in the toughest division in baseball (and there is no arguing this), they have a nice balance of experienced veterans and exciting youth that will allow them to stay completely out of the cellar. Catcher Wilson Ramos, closer Alex Colome, Gold Glove center fielder Kevin Kiermaier and third baseman Matt Duffy (yes, Matt Duffy is healthy!) all return and should have productive seasons. 

The 2017 Rays finished 80-82 and I expect the 2018 Rays to follow suit with nearly the same record, give or take a few. If all things go right, we could see a possible wild card push that keeps the Rays relevant late into the summer. If all things go wrong, expect the Rays to trade everyone you've ever heard of and officially start all over.

See you at the ballpark! 

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