Boston Red Sox: 5 Things to Look for on Opening Day

Douglas Sibor@dcsiborContributor IApril 5, 2012

Boston Red Sox: 5 Things to Look for on Opening Day

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    At long last, we finally get to see some games that count.

    When the Red Sox's season came to a crashing halt on September 28, 2011, fans immediately began to look forward to this day on the calendar. After a tumultuous offseason, the Sox and their fans will finally be able to turn the page on last season’s collapse and simply get back to baseball.

    There will certainly be some bumps in the road as the Sox try to fit inexperienced players into new roles. The offense, defense and pitching will all be affected by these changes, and the famously impetuous fans will expect immediate results.

    Such is both the peril and privilege of playing in Boston, where there is no patience for slow starts or learning on the job. “Produce or get out of town” is the prevailing sentiment amongst fans and media, and how the new players adjust to this added scrutiny will go a long way in determining the success of the team this year.

    While today’s contest will have little bearing on how things shake out this year, the unfortunate ending of last season has added a significance that usually is not attached to just one game of 162. In Boston, the line between being world beaters and cellar dwellers is preposterously thin; one game often can swing the perception of the team 180 degrees.

    Getting off to a good start this season is important for the Sox, and today will set the tone. With so many new players and a new manager, we’ll also begin to learn a bit more about the makeup of this team and how Bobby Valentine plans on using his personnel.

    Here are five key things to watch for when the Sox take the field at Comerica Park this afternoon:

What Is the Batting Order?

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    New manager Bobby Valentine has been particularly coy all offseason about what his plans are for the Red Sox's regular batting order. There have been many different iterations suggested, with many of these possibilities focused on balancing this lefty-heavy lineup.

    All of that speculation will finally be put to rest today. Will Valentine roll out the expected top five of Ellsbury-Pedroia-Gonzalez-Youkilis-Ortiz? Will he try out Pedroia in the No. 3 spot? Could Youkilis (and his high OBP) hit leadoff?

    While Valentine will no doubt tinker with the lineup quite a bit over the course of the season, who he trots out today will give fans a strong indication of how he regards each of his players.

How Does Jon Lester Perform?

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    As one of only three pitchers to win 15 games in each of the last four seasons (CC Sabathia and Roy Halladay are the others), Jon Lester should seemingly have little left to prove. However, Lester said Tuesday that it was “frustrating” that he is frequently not included in discussions of the game’s elite pitchers.

    Today is Lester’s first chance to show just how valuable he is. Dating back to his stellar performance in Game 4 of the 2007 World Series, he has been the team’s best pitcher over the last four seasons.

    That Lester is going into this season with a bit of a chip on his shoulder is a positive sign for Sox fans. He is motivated to not only equal his past successes, but indeed surpass them. Today is the first step.

Is Alfredo Aceves the Answer at Closer?

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    As has been widely discussed over the last couple days, new closer Andrew Bailey will start the season on the DL with a right thumb injury. Yesterday Valentine announced that Alfredo Aceves will start the season as the closer, a somewhat surprising move given that Aceves has only four career saves.

    Aceves has earned a prominent role on the Red Sox with his performance last season and this spring, and now he’ll have an opportunity to prove that he belongs on the mound in key situations.

    He is a highly competitive player, someone who loves having the ball with the game on the line. The closer role, then, seems like a natural fit.

    Today Aceves could see his first action as the Sox closer. How he fares against the likes of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder will give Sox fans either cause for hope or an early reason to panic. 

Whom Does Bobby Valentine Trust?

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    No matter how well he performs, it’s unlikely that Jon Lester is going to throw a complete game. At some point, then, Bobby Valentine is going to have to go to his bullpen in a situation where the result of the game is in doubt.

    It will be interesting to see who he’ll choose in these non-save situations. The top setup man appears to be Mark Melancon, with a lot of question marks behind him.

    Michael Bowden, Scott Atchison and Vicente Padilla all had solid springs and could see important innings right away. Left-hander Franklin Morales had an abbreviated spring training due to injury issues, but he was solid for the Sox last year and may be called upon to shut down Prince Fielder late in the game.

    With 13 pitchers on the 25-man roster, Valentine will not be lacking options when the time comes to bring on a reliever.

How Do the New Starters Look?

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    The turnover amongst everyday players is particularly high this season, with new Opening Day starters at three different positions.

    Mike Aviles beat out Jose Iglesias for the starting shortstop job, and Ryan Sweeney and Cody Ross will be manning the corner outfield spots when the Sox take the field this afternoon. Fans will be looking for immediate results from these players, especially since they all have significant big league experience already.

    While one game certainly does not decide a player’s role on the field, Red Sox fans will be keeping a close eye on each at-bat from these new players. Having led MLB in runs scored last season, the Sox, as well as their fans, have come to expect a high level of production from every spot in the lineup.

    All of these players would be doing themselves a huge favor if they got off to a good start, and performing well today will set a positive tone for the rest of the season.