A Matter Of Time
Look for the Cubs to call up righthander Mark Prior, 21, sooner rather than later
Cubs manager Don Baylor feels like a 16-year-old whose dad just parked a new Ferrari in the driveway, admonished the kid not to drive it and then went away for the weekend: Baylor knows he shouldn't touch Chicago's new high-performance vehicle, but man, it's tempting to do so. "He has the stuff to pitch up here, no question," Baylor says when asked if he would like to see 21-year-old righthander Mark Prior in the rotation. Prior's professional experience, however, was limited to the 47 hitters he'd faced in spring training through Sunday. "Your heart tells you one thing, but his inexperience tells you another."
Chicago will resist temptation—for now. Prior, the second pick in last summer's amateur draft, out of Southern Cal, will start the season in the minor leagues with the Double A West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, but don't be surprised to see him at Wrigley Field sooner rather than later.
The Cubs weren't anticipating such a difficult decision six weeks ago. Prior, who went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA during his junior season with the Trojans, stayed home in Bonita, Calif., last summer while the details of his five-year, $10.5 million contract were worked out. Instead of pitching in the Arizona Fall League, he returned to school to take classes toward his business degree. That meant Prior hadn't thrown in a game for eight months when spring training began; Chicago figured it would let him get his feet wet in the major league camp and then ship him out to let him develop quietly.
Prior blew that plan away in his second spring outing, when he struck out seven in three innings and caused Jerry Manuel, the manager of that day's opponents, the White Sox, to gush that Curt Schilling was the only other pitcher that his team had faced this spring with such electric stuff.
Prior came back to earth (a 9.00 ERA over his first 10 innings, though he racked up 16 strikeouts), but Chicago remains dazzled by his pitcher-perfect, 6'5", 225-pound frame, smooth motion, 94-mph fastball and sharp curve. The coaching staff has also been impressed with the development of his changeup, a pitch he struggled with in college. Working with pitching coach Larry Rothschild, Prior has turned his circle change into a weapon. "He's a very coachable kid," says Baylor. "You can't tell by the [low-key] way he acts how much potential he has."
That potential will no doubt launch a Prior Watch in Chicago as fans anticipate a repeat of the mania that attended Kerry Wood's arrival in 1998. In fact, part of the Cubs' reasoning in sending Prior down was to give him time to adjust to being a professional before making a high-profile big league debut. Chicago has depth in its rotation—righthander Julian Tavarez, who went 10-9 last year, was awarded the fifth spot last week—so the clamor can be ignored for now. If one of those starters falters, Prior can expect a promotion. "He'll get his time," says Baylor, who envisions Prior's throwing about 160 innings in the big leagues this year. "It could be a month into the season."
Giants' Injury Controversy
Will Kent Be Hit For the Cycle?
As of Sunday the Giants' brass knew that second baseman Jeff Kent's broken left wrist was going to prevent him from playing on Opening Day. Exactly how he broke the wrist was still up in the air. Kent was sticking to the story he gave after he was injured on March 1, that he fell while washing his pickup truck, but he wasn't categorically denying reports that he'd actually suffered the fracture when he crashed while popping wheelies on a motorcycle near the Giants' spring complex in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Because Kent isn't likely to miss much of the season—he's expected back in the lineup later this month—the wash-or-wheelie mystery will probably amount to little more than comic relief, but he was flirting with more than physical harm if he was riding a motorcycle. The standard major league contract includes a clause prohibiting a player from participating in a long list of activities, including skiing, skydiving, spelunking, other professional sports and, yes, motorcycle riding. (Clubs make guaranteed multiyear deals even more restrictive.)