Monday, February 26, 2007

same old song and dance

it might surprise you, dear reader, to learn that this writer has in recent weeks slowly grown more and more optimistic about the chances of the chicago national league ballclub in 2007. there's plenty to criticize, of course -- counterproductive trades, deferred salaries neutering future seasons, insufficient acquisitions -- and, good criticism being the vehicle of improvement, this page of course didn't hesitate.

but there are also a few good things to talk about. this club kept aramis ramirez in the 11th hour. this club signed alfonso soriano. and while those additions were made to a 66-win club which placed 15th of sixteen in runs scored and 14th in runs allowed, one could be excused for thinking that -- with a healthy derrek lee -- the offense might even muster an output that would at least be comparable with that of 2004's club, which scored 789 runs on the bats of ramirez, lee, moises alou and sammy sosa. that's a tally that would put the cubs into the second quartile -- 789 would've placed 6th in runs scored the nl in 2006 -- and, with good pitching, lead to more wins than losses (as it did in 2004 with 89 wins).

that might be a bit too optimistic a comparison. after all, where that club had todd walker and mark grudzielanek combining to form a 290/348/464 second baseman with 23 hr and 77 rbi, this club will field mark derosa and ryan theriot. where that club -- with korey patterson between alou and sosa -- slugged 103 homers from the outfield, this club will likely struggle mightily to reach that mark. but a middling offense would be a major improvement on last season.

but where hope for something more than 'middling' remains with the pitching. of course that 2004 club mounted a stellar pitching effort behind carlos zambrano, greg maddux, matt clement -- and a combined 43 starts from kerry wood and mark prior, not to mention the best/luckiest work of glendon rusch's career. that staff was one of the best in the league, finishing third in runs allowed.

flickers of hope for such a performance rest, as has been said, on two arms -- rich hill and mark prior. with wood's flagging career hanging in the balance of a bullpen adventure, and wade miller probably now approaching an end that has long been predicted for him, with big money nailing down spots for ted lilly and jason marquis behind carlos zambrano, it's clear that these two are the cream of the remaining crop. both can be, at their best, better than any other pitcher on the staff -- as hill made clear in last year's brilliant second half and prior demonstrated in 2003.

the question is, can they reach and maintain their best for an entire year? and -- more to the point, can it be this year?

this page has been hill's biggest cheerleader for a long time based on the weight of his minor league output. what he does with this opportunity -- a situation in which he, whatever the cubs say publicly about new-boy lilly, will be counted on to take the reins as clement did for that 2004 club, to be a full-season front-of-the-rotation starter if the cubs are to succeed -- will determine much of the team's fate. with the mediocre lilly and marginal marquis likely to get scads of starts, he will have to produce with real quality.

and this writer, for one, thinks he can. it may not be the sub-3 era we were treated to through july, august and september last -- but it may well be enough to remind of clement and improve upon lilly and marquis.

but that in the end leaves the club with a starting staff that can aspire to be little more than average. zambrano is a fine pitcher, but every good nl club has one -- houston and saint louis particularly have more than a match for him in roy oswalt and chris carpenter. hill may be a fine lieutenant, but again he is unlikely to be radically more to his team than other clubs will muster. lilly is the very definition of a league-average starter, and marquis unlikely to rise to that status. in order to make the difference -- the difference that an offensively-solid-but-unspectacular club will need to threaten in october -- this club need that last rotation spot to behave not like a 5 but like a 2.

and that spot is mark prior's.

there should be no doubt that prior is an excellent pitcher -- taken in context, he's one of the best cub hurlers of the last twenty seasons. by the measure of talent, he is certainly capable of pitching the cubs into the playoffs. but the question is -- as it ever was -- one of durability.

and that, dear reader -- at the end of this exhaustive diatribe -- is why this news is so demoralizing for yours truly.

Right-hander Mark Prior, who's being treated with caution this spring in his comeback from shoulder problems, did not throw to hitters with his usual group, instead doing a lighter, flat-ground throw session, at the pitcher's request, Rothschild said.

It's worth keeping an eye on over the next few days, but Rothschild said Prior was just taking an extra day between live-BP sessions that all the pitchers are getting -- most of them getting that extra day before they throw again Tuesday.

further, prior won't be making starts in the first week of exhibitions.

"We just want to make sure he really feels good, that he's ready," Piniella said. "There's no sense in rushing that situation. I would think by the following Wednesday or Thursday we'll get him into a ballgame."

Informed that Cubs fans had heard this story before, Piniella asked that no one "jump to any conclusions" about Prior's health.

"This is precautionary," he said. "Nothing more. Nothing less. No issues. Nothing. We want to keep it positive. We want to see small but steady progress. You rush something, and then you have to stop it, and then you lose double the time."

Pitching coach Larry Rothschild was asked if Prior would be ready to start the season.

"I have no indication that he won't be," Rothschild said.

someone might also tell lou we've grown wary of rothschild's halfhearted denials.

UPDATE: the cubs have conspicuously reversed their field this afternoon:

Piniella had a meeting with Prior Monday morning at Fitch Park, and announced the change in the schedule following the daily workout.

"Prior is pitching game five of our exhibition season (against Seattle)," Piniella said. "(Ted) Lilly and Prior both (will pitch), but he needs a little more time to warm up, so he'll start game 5 and Lilly will follow."

Piniella said he told Prior in their meeting that "we wanted to give him a little more time and make sure in his mind that he was perfectly set to go."

"Unless there's a setback, and we don't anticipate any at all, he'll be ready to go game 5," he said.

prior had been throwing in the first week of spring for the first time since this blog was started -- in fact since the spring of 2004. while many took a gloomier and more cautious approach, it was hard for this writer not to notice that prior has managed to battle through injuries to start at least 21 games in every full year of his career before 2006. and if prior could manage to start games totaling in the mid-20s at his high level of acumen, with a reasonable bullpen and reasonable health for key players this club would really have a chance to do some damage in a weak central division.

but, coming off an offseason shoulder strengthening program that should have had him in throwing shape faster than most, prior is instead missing scheduled sessions. as we saw last year, laggards tend only to get further behind -- and, too often, that the team obfuscates both that fact and the seriousness of what is transpiring. if prior is not feeling pain and missing mound sessions, he's probably the only pitcher in all of baseball doing so -- clearly, it's more likely that prior has not rebounded from last year's disaster. and that very probably means some of a myriad of things for prior and the cubs, few if any of them good. a pitcher who has pain after a few sessions following months off following a nine-appearance season is probably headed under the knife at some point soon, if not just out of baseball.

here's hoping that prior can somehow overcome and that his tarnished talent pushes the 2007 cubs over the top. but hoping for all that is just the same old song and dance around here, and it's gotten pretty hard to watch.

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