Barbara Howard: Well, baseball is almost back. The Red Sox are packing up after wrapping up spring training. They open their season tomorrow. They're going up against the Rays, in Tampa Bay. Joining us from Florida for a preview of the Sox season is Alex Speier. He is a sports reporter for The Boston Globe. Thanks for joining us, Alex.

Alex Speier: My pleasure, Barbara, thanks so much for having me.

BH: Well the Red Sox offense seemed kind of lackluster at times last season. It was, of course, the Red Sox's first season without David Ortiz, the heart of the lineup. Ortiz retired after the 2016 season. But the Sox, they went out and got a big bat this winter in J.D. Martinez. What can we expect of the Sox offense with the addition of Martinez?

AS: Well, you're right to identify — they finally kind of found their replacement for David Ortiz, who clearly left a gaping hole in the lineup. Martinez is truly one of the elite hitters in baseball, one of the great power hitters in baseball. He had one of the best ratios for at-bats to home runs. It took him less than every 11 trips to the plate last year for him to hit a home run. So that's the kind of production that the Red Sox were lacking. Martinez has a chance to transform what they do, as do improvements by a number of their holdovers — their players who are returning who have a great deal of offensive talent, probably under-performed last year whether because of injury or other matters, and so the Red Sox are hoping that they do have an offense that ranks among the best in baseball this year.

BH: OK, but what about the pitching staff? How's the rotation look there?

AS: At the top, they have — their big two are now healthy. The guys who they've spent a lot of money and resources in terms of players in acquiring, in Chris Sale and David Price who, for the first time, really, promise to be in the same rotation and both healthy at the same time since the Red Sox got both of them over the previous two off seasons. So that's a really good starting point for them. Both looked strong in spring training, as one might expect. Behind them, they bring back Rick Porcello, who has had a very inconsistent first three years in Boston, having had two difficult seasons surrounding a season in which he was the best pitcher in the American League, he won the Cy Young Award. And then the Red Sox have a couple of injuries right now at the back of their rotation, and so they're calling on their depth and their reserves to start the season in Brian Johnson and Hector Velasquez. But to be sure, those guys are both viewed as placeholders until their regular pitchers, Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright, as well as Drew Pomeranz, are available to reclaim their spots in the rotation.

BH: What do you think [is] the biggest challenge you see the Sox facing this season?

AS: Well, internally I think that pitcher health is obviously a big one. I think that this is a team that has a very strong upper echelon of talent. However, as with most teams, once you start seeing some of your stars getting injured, then there are performance declines to be expected. So that's a critical one. Resolving how their bullpen pecking order works, how their relievers are going to be entering the game in order to try to turn leads into victories — that's one that's going to require a little bit of exploration at the start of the season. And then, there's kind of the existential threat, which is the Yankees, who are in their division, are incredibly good, incredibly talented, and probably deeper than the Red Sox this year. The Red Sox were able to win the American League East division and be better than the Yankees for each of the last two years, but a lot of people are expecting that there might be a pendulum swing in the American League East this year, and that the Yankees look, on paper, like an extremely strong team. But the Red Sox are wildly talented, as well. This has a chance to be one of the best division races between those two teams, probably in about a decade.

BH: New York does look stacked, lots of young talent there. What about the new manager, Alex Cora? How do you see him differing from his predecessor, John Farrell? Farrell, of course, was fired at the end of last season.

AS: It's been interesting to see how Alex Cora has built relationships with his players. You know, he's very upfront about the fact that he's younger, he's not that far removed from his playing career, he was playing as recently as about six seasons ago. And so, his ability to relate to particularly the younger players on the Red Sox — because it's a different demographic than we're used to seeing in contending Red Sox teams, and there are a bunch of guys in their early and mid 20s — his ability to relate to those guys, just by kind of being himself, is pretty effortless, and he's mindful of creating an environment in which players are a little bit more relaxed about the day-to-day existence and rigors of being Major Leaguers. Baseball is a long, long season — 162 games — and so, it used to be that people had the mentality that you had to kind of wear your job 24 hours a day. But now, I think that, not only based on kind of general outlook, but also based on kind of some sports science conclusions, there’s a sense that athletes perform at their best when they're in a greater state of relaxation. Alex Cora’s creating a more relaxed environment, whether it's his direct relationships with the players or the kinds of messages and tones he's setting with his players, and the Red Sox are hopeful that that helps to bring out the best in those players' abilities.

BH: Let's see if that plays out — we'll know soon enough. Thanks for joining us, Alex.

AS: Thanks so much, Barbara.

BH: That's Boston Globe sports reporter Alex Speier, joining us from Florida, where the Red Sox have wrapped up spring training. They face the Rays in Tampa Bay tomorrow for the first game of the 2018 season.