Spring Training is nigh, as pitchers and catchers start reporting on Wednesday, and keep trickling into camp throughout Florida and Arizona as the week progresses. Last week, we took a look at the key question facing each American League team in spring training. This week, let’s take a look at the key question each National League team faces:

Diamondbacks: Is Randy Johnson healthy? The future Hall of Famer is tentatively slotted into the second slot in the rotation between Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, that despite the fact that he is coming off his second back surgery in as many years. The Diamondbacks made it to the NLCS without Johnson last year, but he would help the cause if he’s back to his old form.

Braves: Is Mark Kotsay healthy? The Braves traded for Kotsay in the hope that he can bridge the gap in center field until prospect Jordan Schafer is ready in 2009. Kotsay underwent back surgery last year, but didn’t look like he was back after producing a -9.8 VORP in 227 plate appearances for the Athletics.

Cubs: How will the final two spots in the starting rotation shake out? Right-handers Jon Lieber, Jason Marquis, Ryan Dempster, and Sean Gallagher, and left-hander Sean Marshall will all get an opportunity to take these last slots in the rotation. The only candidate brought in from the outside is Lieber, who posted a 1.2 SNLVAR in 78 innings last season for Philadelphia before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Marquis had a 3.4 SNLVAR in 191 2/3 innings, Marshall a 2.5 in 103 1/3 innings. Dempster was the Cubs’ closer last season, notching a 2.657 WRXL in 66 2/3 innings, but even after adding Lieber, the Cubs are interested in letting Dempster take his shot at going back to being the starter he began his career as.

Reds: Who will fill out the starting rotation? Mega-prospect Homer Bailey, prospect Johnny Cueto, and fellow right-handers Matt Belisle and Edinson Volquez will all compete for the final two spots. Belisle was the only pitcher who spent significant time with the big-league club last season, posting a 1.7 SNLVAR in 177 2/3 innings.

Rockies: Who will play second base? Jayson Nix gets first crack at the job after seven seasons in the Rockies’ farm system, but he will be challenged by NRI Marcus Giles, Clint Barmes, Omar Quintanilla, and third basemen Ian Stewart and Jeff Baker. Giles had a miserable year with San Diego last season, posting a -8.7 VORP in 476 PA. Stewart, Barmes, Quintanilla, and Baker were all below replacement level in limited action for the Rockies, and there’s no guarantee that Stewart and Baker can handle the defensive responsibilities at the keystone.

Marlins: Who will play third base? Jorge Cantu, Jose Castillo, and Dallas McPherson all looked to be headed for stardom just a few years ago, and will compete for the right to fill the huge void left by the trade of Miguel Cabrera to Detroit. Last year, Cantu split time with the Rays and Reds organizations, while Castillo finally flopped in Pittsburgh. McPherson spent the entire season on the disabled list with the Angels because of back surgery.

Astros: Will Miguel Tejada be allowed to report to Kissimmee? The Department of Justice is investigating the shortstop over the possibility that he perjured himself when he said in 2006 that he had never used steroids. The investigation could create plenty of problems as far as Tejada getting a work visa to leave the Dominican Republic. If Tejada somehow isn’t allowed to play this season, that leaves utilityman Mark Loretta as the starting shortstop.

Dodgers: Who will be the third baseman? It will be a battle of old versus young at the hot corner, as Nomar Garciaparra competes with Andy LaRoche. Garciaparra put up a paltry 0.8 VORP in 466 plate appearances last season.

Brewers: Who will make up the back end of the rotation? Milwaukee has a rare problem in today’s game: too much starting pitching. Ben Sheets, Jeff Suppan, and Yovani Gallardo are the top three starters, leaving left-handers Chris Capuano and Manny Parra and right-handers Dave Bush, Claudio Vargas, and Carlos Villanueva to scrap for the final two spots in the rotation. Bush had 2.2 SNLVAR in 186 1/3 innings last season, Capuano 2.0 in 150 innings, Villanueva 1.8 in 114 1/3 innings, Vargas 1.5 in 134 1/3 innings, and Parra 0.1 in 26 1/3 innings.

Mets: Is Duaner Sanchez healthy? Sanchez had a 2.796 WXRL in 55 1/3 innings as the Mets’ primary set-up man in 2006, but missed all of last season following shoulder surgery. The Mets need him back in ’06 form because Aaron Heilman struggled as the primary eighth-inning pitcher last season, putting up a 0.596 WXRL in 86 innings.

Phillies: Will Brett Myers make the transition back to the starting rotation after spending most of last season as the closer? The Phillies raised quite a few eyebrows when they shifted Myers, their Opening Day starter last year, to the closer’s role in May when Tom Gordon was placed on the DL. Myers had a 1.647 WXRL as a reliever, which can be replaced, but the question is whether he can build his arm strength back up to handle a starter’s workload after pitching only 68 2/3 innings in 2007.

Pirates: Who will be the center fielder/leadoff hitter? There are three contenders: Nate McLouth quietly had a good season in a part-time role last year; Nyjer Morgan made a splash during a September callup; Chris Duffy will try to regain the job he held each of the past two Opening Days. McLouth had a 21.7 VORP in 382 PA in 2007, while Morgan’s VORP was 5.8 in 118 PA, and Duffy’s was -0.1 in 270 PA before he missed the last three months after spraining an ankle and undergoing shoulder surgery.

Cardinals: Can center-field prospect Colby Rasmus make the jump from Double-A to the major leagues? St. Louis is counting heavily on the 21-year-old Rasmus after trading Jim Edmonds to San Diego in the offseason. The alternative would be Skip Schumaker, who did well in a part-time role last season, generating a 10.1 VORP in 188 PA.

Padres: Is the team healthy? Right fielder Brian Giles is coming off micro-fracture surgery on his knee, center fielder Jim Edmonds missed time with the Cardinals last season because of a myriad of injuries, and right-hander Mark Prior, signed as a free agent, missed last season with the Cubs because of shoulder surgery.

Giants: Will they finally commit to youth? San Francisco says Dan Ortmeier is the first baseman and Kevin Frandsen is the third baseman, but the Giants have rarely trusted young position players in the Brian Sabean era, and some spring moves for veterans (Joe Crede?) are always possible, and neither youngster was a world-beater last season.

Nationals: Who will be in the starting rotation? It is not a stretch to say all five spots are up for grabs, particularly with right-handers Shawn Hill and John Patterson coming off of elbow surgeries. Among the others who will be under consideration are Jason Bergmann, left-hander Matt Chico, Tim Redding, Joel Hanrahan, and Tyler Clippard.

Nolan Ryan certainly knew how to strike hitters out, fanning a major league record 5,714 in a 27-year career that ended in 1993 and landed him in the Hall of Fame. Now, we’ll find out if Ryan can run a baseball team. The Texas Rangers hired Ryan as their president this past week and left no doubt that the 61-year-old is in charge of the entire operation.

“He will oversee all aspects of the organization,” Rangers owner Tom Hicks told the Dallas Morning News. “It was timed for this organization to get some fresh blood at the top management levels. I could think of only one guy that was perfect for that.”

The Rangers have had seven losing seasons in the last eight years. Hicks, however, believes Ryan and 30-year-old General Manager Jon Daniels can form the perfect combination to get the franchise back on track. “I’m excited about combining Jon’s intelligence, his creative thinking, and his aggressiveness with Nolan’s maturity in the game,” Hicks said. “It’s a structure we’ve never had.”

Ryan ranks above Daniels in the Rangers’ new hierarchy. However, Ryan said the baseball operations department is still in Daniels’ hands, and he will not meddle in player personnel affairs. “I’m a resource,” Ryan said. “At the end, Jon has to weigh where Tom stands and my opinions and come to his own decision. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be fair to him.”

For his part, Daniels is excited about working with Ryan rather than intimidated about being in the shadow of a certifiable legend. “His involvement can only be positive,” Daniels said. “I’ve always been a collaborative decision-maker and the more information you have, especially when the information comes from somebody with the baseball acumen that he has, the better off you are. I’m going to go to him and solicit his help. We’re both here to do the same thing: win a World Series.”

The Rangers could also use a bit of image polishing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. They drew only 2.35 million fans last year after once drawing nearly 2.85 million during their peak attendance years of 1998 and 1999. Ryan knows that his name and popularity with Rangers’ fans is a large part of the reason he is in his new post. “I want our fans to feel comfortable with me as president,” Ryan said. “They should see me. I’ll have a presence. I want to hear what they have to say, and we want to be open to them.”

Last year at this time, Philadelphia shortstop Jimmy Rollins declared that his Phillies were the team to beat in the National League East, even though the Mets were the defending division champions. He proved to be prophetic, as the Phillies rallied from seven games down in the last 17 days of the season to overtake the Mets.

This year, more people have joined Rollins on the Phillies’ bandwagon. The interesting part, though, is that those people are Mets third baseman David Wright and manager Willie Randolph. The addition of Johan Santana would seem to tip the balance of power back to the Mets. However, members of the organization at the press conference to introduce Santana this past week repeatedly said that the Phillies have to be considered the favorites.

“The team to beat in my eyes is the team that won last year,” Wright said. “Philadelphia took care of us last year. They took care of business in the division.” Randolph added, “I still respect the fact that they beat us last year.”

Randolph was also forthright in discussing his team’s collapse at the end of last season: “Our core players just struggled and lost their confidence at the wrong time. It’s still going to be there. We won’t let it consume us (but) every four-game losing streak, we’re going to hear about it. We’re going to have to take our medicine.”

Now that the Santana and Erik Bedard trades have finally been consummated, the next big pitcher’s big contract story is that of Cleveland left-hander C.C. Sabathia. Last year’s American League Cy Young Award winner can become a free agent at the end of the year, and the Indians‘ reported offer of four years and $72 million made in December isn’t even close to the six years and $137.5 million Santana got from the Mets. However, don’t look for the Indians to trade Sabathia this season, not unless they surprise people and fall out of the AL Central race before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.

“We made a philosophical decision, based upon winning 96 games last year, based on where this team is, its maturity in general,” Indians GM Mark Shapiro told the Lake County News-Journal. “We owe it to our fans not to pursue a trade that compromises this year’s opportunity to contend. It’s not that we haven’t considered a multitude of trades outside of C.C. We have. But we can’t construct a trade, with or without C.C., that improves this team’s chances of winning. That’s why we haven’t acted. If we had, we would have already made a trade, involving him or someone else. Our commitment is to be as good as we can be this season.”

Sabathia has repeatedly said that he wants to stay in Cleveland and Shapiro has made it clear that the feeling is mutual. “I’ve said from day one that there is no issue whether C.C. wants to remain here, and there is no question that we want to keep him here,” Shapiro reflected. “The only question that remains is can we find a business deal that is deemed equitable and fair by both parties? Any deal like that we could arrive at will cause both parties to reach and stretch past their point of comfort. The question is, can we reach and stretch to arrive at a point that both of us feel good about?”

The Indians are hopeful of resolving Sabathia’s situation by the time spring training ends. If they don’t reach a deal, Sabathia’s impending free agency would seemingly be a potential distraction during the regular season. However, the Indians say they would be surprised if it would make a bit of difference. “I can’t imagine C.C. making any kind of issue about it,” Indians first baseman Ryan Garko said. “Contract stuff doesn’t matter on the field or in the clubhouse. Knowing the type of person C.C is, I’m sure he will never even bring any of that contract stuff up with the rest of us. You can make a strong case that he is the most-liked guy on a team where we have a really good group of guys. C.C. is the last guy on our club that would create a distraction.”

Rumors and Rumblings: Oakland is open to trading Joe Blanton during spring training, and Cincinnati appears to be the leading candidate to land the right-hander, though Boston may have interest since Curt Schilling is out until at least the All-Star break with his recently-diagnosed shoulder problems, and the Athletics covet Red Sox center fielder Coco Crisp. … Baltimore is scrambling to fill its rotation, particularly after trading Bedard, and has gotten in late bids on free agent right-handers Kyle Lohse, Shawn Chacon, and Josh Fogg. Fogg is likely kicking himself for not taking a one-year, $5 milliion offer to re-sign with Colorado early in the offseason. … Minnesota is leaning against signing any veteran starter on the free-agent market after going that route last year and watching both Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz flame out. … Speaking of Ponson, Texas has interest in bringing him to spring training on a minor league contract.

Right-hander Kris Benson continues to throw for scouts to show he is healthy after missing last season because of shoulder surgery, and Philadelphia appears to have the most interest, with Atlanta, Houston, St. Louis, and Washington also in the fray. Benson is said to be leaning toward the Braves because he lives in Atlanta. … Cincinnati is considering signing free-agent reliever Scott Williamson, bringing him back to the organization where he won National League Rookie of the Year honors in 1999. … Arizona has decided on Brandon Lyon to replace the traded Jose Valverde as closer, with Tony Pena pitching the eighth inning, and Chad Qualls working the seventh … Further proof that this internet thing might be catching on came this past week, when the story of Ryan Klesko‘s retirement was broken by Atlanta third baseman Chipper Jones, who posted it on the comments section of Braves beat writer Dave O’Brien’s blog on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s website.

The Nippon Ham Fighters are reportedly considering posting right-hander Yu Darvish, the best pitcher in Japan, as a free agent next winter. His fee could exceed the $51 million Boston paid to negotiate with Daisuke Matsuzaka last winter. … Another free agent who miscalculated his worth is Tony Clark, who rejected a two-year, $3 million offer to stay with Arizona last September, and now figures to sign for under $1 million with San Diego, the Dodgers, or Seattle. … The Dodgers appear to have the most interest in free agent first baseman Mike Sweeney, who worked out for San Diego this past week, though Oakland and Texas could also be landing spots for him. Outfielder Kevin Mench will likely have to take the non-roster route to spring training after being released by Milwaukee in December, but he has a number of suitors, notably the Royals, Yankees, and Rangers.

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