Cubs kick off caravan with good news

Cubs kick off caravan with good news

CHICAGO -- The Cubs began their winter Cubs Caravan tour on Wednesday with good news regarding Mark Prior, who is throwing off the mound and making good progress.

"Mark is up on the hill, throwing some bullpens and doing well," Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said Wednesday before boarding a bus with other players and staff for a trip to downstate Illinois.

"The reports have been encouraging, and we're all keeping our fingers crossed," Hendry said. "We'd love to show up and have the old Mark back and feel like we have a great, new player come in that we weren't expecting. We wanted to cover ourselves in depth if Mark was behind, but if he's on schedule, we'll feel like we got a bonus."

Prior, 26, is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he was 1-6 with a 7.21 ERA in nine starts. A shoulder injury hampered him, and he was forced to devote this offseason to rehab. Pitching coach Larry Rothschild said he talked to the right-hander every week for progress reports.

"He's going through a pretty strenuous program and has been throwing for quite a while," Rothschild said.

But the Cubs won't know for sure if Prior is the 2003 version, when he was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 30 starts, until Spring Training. Pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 14.

Rothschild also has been in contact with right-hander Wade Miller, who made five September starts for the Cubs in his comeback from arthroscopic shoulder surgery in 2005.

"He's had a good winter and worked hard," Rothschild said of Miller, 30, who won 16, 15, and 14 games in consecutive seasons with Houston from 2001-2003. "[Miller] started throwing a few weeks ago and has had no problems at all. All three of the guys rehabbing have really worked hard."

The third is Kerry Wood, who was diagnosed with a partial tear in his right rotator cuff and opted to rehab rather than undergo surgery. Rothschild said he's encouraged by Wood's progress, too.

"This time of year, guys should be doing well," Rothschild said. "As we get closer to Spring Training, we keep getting positive feedback."

The Cubs will have their first full-squad workout in one month. Hendry isn't finished yet.

"In a perfect world, I'd like to tinker with the outfield," Hendry said. "We have a very solid group. We're counting on our young kid, Felix Pie, being a factor, whether it's Opening Day or down the road shortly after. When you get out your wish list, you can't make it all about buying new players. You want to have your own guys develop, too."

Pie batted .216 in 38 games for Licey in the Dominican Republic Winter League, hitting one home run, four doubles and driving in 16 runs. Cubs player development director Oneri Fleita got good reports regarding Pie's progress, even if the stats aren't spectacular.

"A couple things happened to Felix Pie this winter," Fleita said. "First of all, most guys are home. He was playing baseball. No. 2, he hit ninth, and he probably experienced a season unlike anything in his career. When you hit ninth, you don't face the starting pitcher when you come back and hit in the fifth or sixth innings. You face a lot of tough pitchers. I think the experience will prove a lot of dividends for his career and this organization.

"A lot of times they talk about the 'winter ball winter' -- 'The guy had a great winter,'" Fleita said. "Most of the time, they don't follow up and have a good year in our country. There are more guys who have poor winters and then have good seasons. Plus, in this lineup, we don't need him to hit, we need his defense."

Former Cubs center fielder Bobby Dernier worked with Pie on base stealing in Arizona for a few weeks before Pie joined Licey. Fleita said having Cubs Minor League hitting coach Von Joshua on the Licey staff also helped Pie.

"What a player learns isn't exactly indicative in numbers," Fleita said. "Everything he learned from Von Joshua and being around those kind of players in winter ball will certainly be a positive."

Does that mean Pie can be inserted as the starter in center field on the depth chart?

"He's going to have to go there and earn it," Fleita said. "Nobody's giving him anything. That will be up to Lou [Piniella] and his staff and Jim. [Pie] will be given a chance to come in and have some fun. Let's see what happens."

This offseason, Fleita also watched infielder Ronny Cedeno, who appears to be without a regular position on the Cubs. The team has shortstop Cesar Izturis and second baseman Mark DeRosa on the roster, and Cedeno's .245 season in 2006 didn't help him cement a spot.

"The thing he has done that's positive is that he's working every day, he's getting a lot of reps," Fleita said of Cedeno. "He's played good defense. The experience he's gained will pay dividends down the road. He had a great winter last year, almost won the batting title [in Venezuela], and it didn't show up here. This year, he's worked on a few things. Sometimes they won't show up in statistics."

Cedeno has played primarily shortstop in Venezuela, but has worked out at second base.

"I think he'll be fine when the time comes," Fleita said. "He's still a young kid. Barry Bonds wasn't good for a couple years."

Hendry, Fleita and Rothschild were joined on the bus ride on Wednesday by bench coach Alan Trammell, new Peoria Chiefs manager Ryne Sandberg, Cubs pitchers Rich Hill and Neal Cotts, infielder Ryan Theriot and Minor League second baseman Eric Patterson. It's the start of a new era for the Cubs, with Piniella at the helm.

"I think I'm really looking forward to a fresh start," Hendry said, eager to forget last season's 96-loss campaign. "We're looking forward to that first day and putting [2006] totally behind us forever."

Carrie Muskat is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.