It's been a long time in coming, but Friday is Opening Day. With the Red Sox finally returning to regular season action, it seems obvious what to look for. We can see Adrian Gonzalez taking his first real at bat for the team. We can watch the return of Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia. We can see Carl Crawford tearing it up both on the basepaths and in left field.
But we can expect all that. If we slept through the game or even missed the whole series, we could be reasonably certain that all of those things happened.
So what else is there to watch for? Plenty.
1. Jacoby Ellsbury's Power
Homers and extra base hits aren't the sort of things that typically come to mind when talking about Jacoby Ellsbury, but the speedster has been showing just that in spring. At .565, Ellsbury had one of the highest slugging percentages on the team, clubbing three homers in just 62 at bats. While spring training stats aren't exactly the most reliable of numbers, it's hard to fake the power that results in balls sailing over the fences. We still haven't seen Ellsbury in his prime, and haven't actually seen him at full strength since 2009. While Ellsbury isn't going to be hitting 30, or even 20 homers anytime soon, adding some marginal power would make him one of the team's most dynamic hitters.
2. Marco Scutaro And Jed Lowrie
Marco Scutaro is the starting shortstop, and he certainly earned that spot by outperforming Jed Lowrie in spring, but the battle is far from over.
This should be an interesting competition for a number of reasons. Marco Scutaro could well be due for a rebound season after playing through injuries in 2010, and that alone would be a huge boost to the Red Sox' offense. But if he does end up struggling and giving Jed Lowrie a shot, then even more doors are opened. If Lowrie can get even close to the numbers he put up in 2010, then the Sox would be crazy not to start him. Not just now, but in the future, too. For Jed Lowrie, the bigger threat isn't losing playing time to Marco Scutaro in 2011, but losing his shot to block Jose Iglesias. Because with any decent year in Pawtucket, Iglesias will be set to leapfrog Lowrie and take over the starting shortstop role in 2012, never even giving the Stanford alumnus a shot at the position.
3. Jon Lester/David Ortiz' Slow Starts
April has not been kind to David Ortiz and Jon Lester. While Lester can be excused some -- if not entirely -- based on a little bad luck in the month, Ortiz is just plain bad in the first month of the year. Sometimes it lasts even longer. By this point, it would be nice to think that both players have earned some small reprieve from the doubts of the fanbase and media when things don't go swimmingly right off the bat, but if either of them -- Ortiz especially -- find himself in another April funk, expect some frustration and tense conversations after bad games.
4. Jarrod Saltalamacchia Not Being Terrible
If Jacoby Ellsbury had a great spring training, than how do you describe Jarrod Saltalamacchia's? At 1.114, Salty had by far the best spring of any Red Sox with a decent number of plate appearances. He struck out only five times, walked just as many, and, while he only had one homer, added six doubles. It's a small sample size, and it's Spring Training, but with all the offensive capabilities Saltalamacchia had coming up through the minors, and when you consider that he's only 25 and thus far from his expected prime, it's possible that one of the Sox' biggest question marks could end the season as their biggest surprise.
5. Clay Buchholz' Peripherals
One of the most effective pitchers in 2010 still has a lot to prove in 2011. While Clay Buchholz was keeping runs off the board better than almost anyone else, he didn't do it in a way that is entirely sustainable. Control issues persisted, and his strikeout rates were the lowest of his career. This isn't an irrevocable sentencing to mediocrity by any means -- Jon Lester had similarly worrying peripherals in 2008 before bringing them up to meet his results in 2009. But the question remains: Is Clay Buchholz a long-term second ace for the Sox behind Lester, or more just a solid third man?
Of course, immediate impressions aren't necessarily going to tell us anything. If Jarrod Saltalamacchia hits a homer in his first at bat, that doesn't mean he's going to have a good season, much as a perfect first inning for Jon Lester could lead directly into a four run second (knock on wood). But it's worth keeping an eye on all these situations in the early going. As the Sox start to progress through the season, we'll have a better idea about who's going in what direction, and management can start working out the ramifications from there.