Life in the AL East has never been easy for the Tampa Bay Rays, who will learn a lot about their revamped roster during a challenging season-opening stretch that begins Thursday against the Boston Red Sox.
The budget-minded club that spent much of the winter trimming payroll faces the defending division champions seven times in the first nine games.
The other two are on the road against the New York Yankees, who came within one victory of reaching last year's World Series.
U.S. & World
And that was before adding Giancarlo Stanton last offseason.
"The American League is going to be fun," opening day starter Chris Archer said. "It's going to be tough, but I'd rather play against the strongest competition any day than any weaker competition."
The Red Sox will counter Thursday with ace Chris Sale, a 17-game winner in 2017, when they won 93 games before losing in the divisional round of the playoffs to eventual World Series champion Houston.
First-year manager Alex Cora was the Astros' bench coach and has been brought in to help Boston take the next step.
"At the end of the day we want to be the last team standing," Sale said. "That's the expectation going in and that will be expectation throughout this whole process."
Sale, 17-8 with a 2.90 ERA and 308 strikeouts a year ago, is one of only two AL pitchers who've made 30-plus starts and worked more than 200 innings each of the last three seasons.
The other is Archer, a two-time All-Star who was 10-12 with a 4.07 ERA and 249 strikeouts in 2017, his third consecutive losing record.
:Success is defined a lot of different ways. But if we play the way we're capable of, and we stay healthy, then I think we're going to exceed outsiders' expectations," said Archer, who heads a four-man rotation that took a hit when Nathan Eovaldi was placed on the 10-day disabled list with an elbow injury that requires arthroscopic surgery.
The 29-year-old Rays ace rejects the notion there's more pressure on him in 2018 following the departure of Alex Cobb and Jake Odorizzi.
"I judge myself based off other factors besides win/loss," Archer said.
"It starts with being on the field. ... Making every start is the most important thing to me. Pitching deep into ballgames is important to me," he added. "And I think over the course of 33 or 34 starts, regardless of what my numbers are at the end of the season, there's going to be stretches of consistency there that are going to help my team win more times than not."
Despite losing Cobb to free agency and trading Odorizzi, Evan Longoria, Corey Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr., manager Kevin Cash insists Tampa Bay is capable of winning a lot more games than one of the lowest payrolls in baseball might suggest.
Newcomers include veteran outfielders Denard Span and Carlos Gomez, as well as first baseman/designated hitter C.J. Cron.
The return of third baseman Matt Duffy, out all of last year with an Achilles injury, could help, too.
"We're hungry to succeed, I know that. There's a lot guys in that clubhouse right now that want to win, want to perform, want to get deeper than what we've done, individually and as a team," Cash, beginning his fourth season with the Rays, said.
"Competitive in this division is not good enough. ... We realize we've got to win," the manager added. "We're going to learn a bunch in the first two weeks. We've got a fun schedule to go be a part of."
Sale will make his first opening day start for the Red Sox after facing just four batters in his final spring training appearance, exiting last Saturday after being hit in the left hip by a line drive off the bat of Houston's J.D. Davis.
"He's ready. He's going to set the tempo for this season," Cora said.
"The most important thing is to keep him healthy. ... We have to make sure we take care of him," the Boston manager added. "He's a guy we know how dominate he can be, how important he is for our team."