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Ross Newhan ON BASEBALL

Cubs Excited About Prior Engagement

March 09, 2003|Ross Newhan

MESA, Ariz. — As Dusty Baker works on the mind-set, the transformation of the Chicago Cubs from lovable losers -- a description Baker employs disdainfully -- to consistent contenders will hinge heavily, perhaps, on how Mark Prior and an impressive young mound set perform.

Does it start with pitching?

"Doesn't it always?" said Baker, the new Chicago manager, snapping off the names of almost a dozen young Cub pitchers, saying he hasn't seen a better group of young arms since he was with the Dodgers almost 25 years ago.

He referred to an era in which the Dodger assembly line rolled out Rick Sutcliffe, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Sid Fernandez, Ted Power, Steve Howe, John Franco, John Wetteland and Joe Beckwith, among others. And almost all of them, Baker said, "had that long, lean Dodger body that you look for in a pitcher." He is now seeing that look in the Cubs' camp.

"Somebody did a [great] scouting job here," he said. "Not only in the States, but in Latin America too."

Not all of those long, lean bodies will be ready to wear Cub uniforms when the season starts in three weeks, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Prior, in only his second pro season, will.

As catcher Damian Miller said of the former USC star, "I've never seen a 22-year-old kid who is so far ahead of where he is supposed to be or where you would think he'd be. We have a couple guys here with a chance to become bona-fide superstars."

Miller knows superstars.

Obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks in an off-season trade, he frequently caught Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and insists he hasn't become a little loopy from taking foul balls off his facemask.

He insists that Prior and Kerry Wood, 25, who will join Matt Clement, 28, and Carlos Zambrano, 21, at the front end of a promising rotation, have the potential to reach that Johnson-Schilling galaxy.

"Their stuff is as good as I've seen," Miller said. "It's just as good as, if not better than, [Johnson and Schilling's]. The difference is in the mental edge. Mark and Kerry are still learning how to make their pitch when they need it, learning how to get the strikeout and double play when they need it, learning how to harness their stuff and not beat themselves.

"When they get total command, it's lights out."

Wood, of course, already carries a big league resume. He reestablished his career after missing the 1999 season because of elbow reconstruction, having struck out 217 batters in each of the last two seasons with earned-run averages of 3.36 and 3.66.

Prior is just getting started and has to prove he can consistently find the light switch.

The former Trojan was the second player chosen in the 2001 June draft, after the Minnesota Twins chose a less expensive top pick. Prolonged negotiations ultimately produced a five-year, $10.5-million contract, including a $4-million signing bonus, but wiped out any chance of his pitching professionally that summer. He broke in at the double-A level last year and started only nine minor league games before being promoted to the majors. He went 6-6 with the Cubs, posting a 3.32 ERA in 19 starts, striking out 147 batters in 116 2/3 innings.

Now, with the hiring of Baker and the addition of starting pitcher Shawn Estes and relievers Mike Remlinger, Dave Veres and Mark Guthrie, there is optimism beyond the usual in the camp of the lovable losers, much of it pinned to the four young starters. Prior accepts that with the same matter-of-fact maturity with which he dismisses his limited experience.

"First of all," he said, "as much as I'd like to be dominant with every start, I want to be effective and pitch for a winner, and no one puts more pressure on me to pitch well than I do. I think that's the way it is for most people. The internal pressure is far more than what other people can put on you.

"Secondly, I don't feel like I'm being rushed. Playing at a quality level, as I did at USC my last two years, going to the College World Series twice, experiencing media interviews and a lot of the pressures that accompany all of that was the equivalent, in my mind, of pitching at the Class-A and double-A levels. The Cubs invested a lot of money in me and wouldn't have done that if they didn't think I'd be ready relatively soon. That can backfire if it doesn't work out, but I'm confident they've given me enough time to develop. I mean, it would be foolish for me to say that I don't have things left to learn, but that goes on forever. Guys are playing at 35 and 40 and still learning."

Prior recently donated $200,000 to the USC baseball program. Said Cub pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who has allowed Prior to maintain some of the workout schedule he developed at USC and in training with former big league pitcher and coach Tom House: "I don't think Mark would have been helped as much as he would have been bored with any more time in the minor leagues. He's going to get better by pitching against major league competition because that's where his talent level belongs."

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