The Portland Sea Dogs opened their 17th season, their eighth as the Double-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, April 8 with a road win against the Reading Phillies.

After playing their first seven games out of town, the Sea Dogs return for their home opener Thursday at 6 pm. against the Trenton Thunder, affiliate of the New York Yankees.

Singer-songwriter Jonathan Edwards, best known for the 1971 hit “Sunshine,” will perform the national anthem and former New York Yankees manager and Maine native, Stump Merrill, will throw out the ceremonial first pitch. The Thunder feature catcher Austin Romine, 21, last year’s Florida State League (Advanced-A) MVP. He is the son of Kevin Romine, a utility outfielder who played for the Red Sox from 1985 to 1991.

The Sea Dogs’ 24-man roster includes 13 returning players from the 2009 season and eight of Boston’s top 20 prospects according to Baseball America. The prospects include No. 2 Casey Kelly, No. 5 Ryan Kalish, No. 9 Jose Iglesias, No. 12 Yamaico Navarro, No. 14 Lars Anderson, No. 17 Stephen Fife, No. 18 Felix Doubront and No. 20 Che-Hsuan Lin. Four of the eight prospects (Anderson, Kalish, Navarro and Doubront) were with the team last year.

Kelly, 20, split time last season playing both shortstop and pitching in Single A. A great athlete, he was offered a football scholarship to play quarterback at Tennessee. This year, he will stick to pitching. Baseball America rates his fastball, curve, changeup and control as tops in the Red Sox system.

“Pitching is obviously the fastest way up to the big leagues and probably the longer career to be in the big leagues,” Kelly said. He is the son of Pat Kelly, a nine-year Major League veteran.

First baseman Anderson, 22, hit a team high .316 in 41 games in 2008, after being called up from Class A. He came back to Portland last season rated as the Red Sox No. 1 prospect, but his average slipped to .233 with nine home runs and 51 RBI. He is still viewed by Baseball America as the best power hitter in the system and is projected as the Red Sox starting first baseman in 2012. Anderson is the tallest Sea Dog at 6-foot-5.

Kalish, 22, was the Red Sox 2009 Minor League Offensive Player of the Year, hitting .285 with 18 home runs and 77 RBI between Single-A Salem and Double-A Portland. He is batting leadoff this season.

Iglesias, 20, in his first season of professional baseball, received a $6 million signing bonus in September. That payment was twice the previous Red Sox’ high. It is rare to start out in Double A, but the slick-fielding shortstop is already rated by Baseball America as the best defensive infielder in the system. Catcher, Juan Apodaca, is helping the Cuban-born Iglesias communicate with the media. Iglesias is the youngest player on the team.

Navarro, 22, was promoted to Portland last July 22. He has moved from shortstop to third base this season to accommodate Iglesias.

Fife, 23, is a right-handed pitcher in his first year with the Sea Dogs. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 6.14 (86K/14BB) was tops last year among Red Sox minor leaguers.

Doubront, 22, was named the Sea Dogs 2009 Pitcher of the Year after posting an 8-6 record. His 3.35 ERA was second in the Eastern League, and his 7.51 strikeouts per nine innings were fourth in the league. The lanky lefty is 6-foot-2 and weighs just 165 pounds. Doubront was the opening day starter and picked up the win by going five innings while giving up just three hits and two earned runs.

Lin, 21, is ranked by Baseball America as having the system’s best strike-zone discipline and being the best defensive outfielder. He ranked third in the Red Sox organization last year with 26 stolen bases. A Taiwan native, Lin was leading the Sea Dogs with three stolen bases and five hits after the team’s first three games this season.

Manager Arnie Beyeler returns as the first skipper in team history to manage for four seasons. In 2009, Beyeler led the team to a 67-74 record and the team missed the playoffs after four consecutive appearances.

The opening series continues on Friday evening and with day games on Saturday and Sunday. On Sunday, the Sea Dogs and Thunder will wear the uniforms of their Major League affiliates to create a future Sox/ Yankees rivalry game at Hadlock Field.

The homestand continues against the Binghamton Mets on Monday and Tuesday at 6 p.m., and with a getaway game Wednesday at noon.

The Eastern League has restructured and renamed its two divisions for the 2010 season. The two six-team divisions will now be known as the Eastern Division and the Western Division. The San Francisco Giants have moved their affiliate from Connecticut (Defenders) to Richmond (Flying Squirrels) and are now in the Western Division.

The Reading Phillies have taken their place in the East.

Trenton will be at Hadlock for 10 games this season. The nearby New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Toronto Blue Jays) will play eight games in Portland. Their first appearance is not until July 5. The other Eastern division foes: Reading, Binghamton and New Britain will be at Hadlock for seven, 10 and 14 games respectively.

Western Division opponents are each in town for just one series, except for Harrisburg, which will appear twice.

Mike Antonellis, radio voice of the Sea Dogs, returns for his sixth season. Coverage begins 20 minutes prior to the first pitch. Games can be heard in the Portland area on 1490 AM, and online at The New England Sports Network (NESN) will broadcast from Hadlock on May 31.

At Media Day, the players sit in front of their lockers, making themselves available for interviews. Some get more attention than others, reminding me of middle school gym class, when we lined up to be picked for square dancing.

I spoke with Bryce Cox, a returning relief pitcher from Dallas, who was second in the Eastern League last season with 38 games finished. Cox had arrived in Portland just the day before, after an exhausting 27-hour drive from Florida. He was here for about 48 hours, having to leave the next day for the eight-hour bus ride. On his only full day in town, Cox had an on-field practice, media responsibilities and the Youth Alternatives “Meet the Team” dinner.

Cox, 25, was looking forward to starting the season and the opportunities it presented, hoping for his first call up to Triple A.

The right-hander played third base in high school (he was a fan of Cal Ripken Jr.) and also soccer and basketball before concentrating on baseball as an 11th grader. At junior college, he began his transformation to pitcher, which he fine-tuned during two years at Rice University. Cox was very generous with his time and it was a pleasure to talk with him.

Beginning on Thursday, Sea Dogs fans will be able to cheer for him and his teammates at Hadlock Field.

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Portland Sea Dogs pitcher Bryce Cox.

Returning Portland Sea Dogs slugger Lars Anderson.