Whether they are playing in the air conditioning of Tropicana Field or, next week, in the chill of New England, the Boston Red Sox will feel the heat.

The pressure of the 2018 baseball season begins Thursday, when the Red Sox play the Tampa Bay Rays at 4 p.m.

Boston is expected to win, and not just on Thursday.

The Red Sox won the American League East Division the past two years, but Manager John Farrell was fired after two first-round exits in the playoffs.

But there is more at play than just playoff frustration.

Alex Cora, the new Red Sox manager, takes over a team that enters the season with high expectations, and with an impatient fan base that likely won’t be satisfied by anything less than a World Series title. Associated Press/John Minchillo

The issues are time and money.

Look at Boston’s payroll: $234,600,428, according to Spotrac.com. That not only leads the majors, it leads by a lot. The San Francisco Giants are second at $207 million. The one-time big-spenders, the New York Yankees, check in seventh at a thrifty $166 million.

Given its payroll, Boston expects a winner.

Now.

Red Sox fans, never accused of being patient, are watching the window closing on this current cast of well-paid players.

Starter Drew Pomeranz, All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel and reliever Joe Kelly will be free agents after this season, and former Cy Young winner David Price has an opt-out clause in his contract.

Starting pitcher: David Price
2018 salary: $30 million

After the 2019 season, ace Chris Sale and another Cy Young winner, Rick Porcello, are scheduled to become free agents, as are shortstop Xander Bogaerts and first baseman Hanley Ramirez (assuming his vesting option kicks in for next year).

Plus, newly signed slugger J.D. Martinez, can opt out after 2019.

Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. would be free agents after the 2020 season, by the way.

Closer: Craig Kimbrel
2018 salary: $13 million

Of course, every team goes through transitions – and free agents do re-sign with their clubs – but there is no guarantee that Boston can match the talent it has on this team.

In recent years, the Red Sox could replenish with their farm system.

But the best prospects have already been promoted or traded. At the upper levels of the minors, there are few touted prospects, save for third baseman Michael Chavis (67 games in Double-A, currently on the disabled list) and Triple-A first baseman Sam Travis. Utility player Tzu-Wei Lin will help in the majors.

The top pitching prospects, first-round draft picks Jay Groome and Tanner Houck, are expected to start the year in low-Class A Greenville.

So, a bevy of reinforcements are not coming from the farm.

When Dave Dombrowski was hired as president in August 2015 – replacing general manager Ben Cherington who, along with his predecessor Theo Epstein, built the farm system – the mission was clear: win now.

Two division titles were exciting, for sure.

Now, a spoiled fan base – not to mention the free-spending owners – want more … before the window closes.

PREDICTION TIME

Most predictions have the same teams winning divisions in the American League (Yankees, Indians and Astros) and National League (Nationals, Cubs, Dodgers).

The closest division race looks to be the AL East, with the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry born again.

I can agree with five of the divisions, and it makes little sense to go against New York in the AL, but I’ll be the contrarian (or homer) and go with the Red Sox winning a third straight division crown, edging the Yankees by a game or two.

New York has the better, deeper bullpen. Boston features the slightly better rotation, although New York’s rotation is deep and has better reinforcements in Triple-A.

The Yankees have more power in their lineup. Boston’s lineup is deep.

Regardless of who wins the division, both teams will make the playoffs. And wouldn’t it be a treat if the teams collided in the American League Championship Series, after those memorable ones in 2003 and 2004?

Alas, Houston and Cleveland may be bound for the ALCS, with the Indians topping Washington in the World Series.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases