Cubs have alleviated Prior concerns

Cubs have alleviated Prior concerns

MESA, Ariz. -- The sun is shining, the sky is blue, the grass is green. And this spring, these ultimately reassuring surroundings at HoHoKam Park do not seem to be a mirage for the Chicago Cubs.

In many past springs, if the Cubs were optimistic, you asked: "Why?" This spring, the better question seems to be: "Why not?"

The Cubs' 2006-07 offseason was the work of winter legend, not only for spending nearly $300 million on free agents, but for doing the two essential things that needed to be done.

The Cubs landed the impact player of the winter, Alfonso Soriano, who brings a rare blend of speed and power. And they beefed up the depth of their rotation with the acquisition of Ted Lilly and Jason Marquis. In all cases, truly substantial amounts of money exchanged hands, but in the case of the pitching, the Cubs finally put themselves in a position in which the health and general well-being of Mark Prior would not be the defining issue of their season.

When Carlos Zambrano, the foundation of this rotation, strode happily into the clubhouse on Thursday, announcing to the world in general: "America's Team -- The Chicago Cubs!" nobody blinked, everybody smiled. High spirits and general acclaim, why not?

And on Thursday, when the new manager, Lou Piniella, addressed the central issues of his club, his optimism seemed not only genuine, but genuinely well-placed.

Soriano is being asked to play center field, a year after he was shifted from second to left by the Washington Nationals. Looking back on Thursday, Soriano offered thanks to Nationals general manager Jim Bowden for pushing him to make the switch to the outfield. That seemed just a bit strange, since Soriano initially balked at the move last spring and sat out an exhibition game over the issue.

"It's weird," Soriano acknowledged, but he went on to say that with the year in the outfield under his belt, he now felt more comfortable there. He would, he said, be willing to play left, or center, or right, whatever the Cubs wanted or needed. That probably isn't going to be necessary. The Cubs will happily settle for Soriano being a speedy, athletic, albeit somewhat inexperienced, center fielder.

"I think it's going very well," Piniella said of Soriano's transition to center. "I haven't seen anything that leads me to believe that he won't play well in center field. We've been asking our center fielders here to play a little deeper because of the high skies and the way the ball carries. But outside of that, he's made all the plays he needs to make, he takes balls off the bat every day, he gets good jumps on balls, he's running good routes, so I think he'll be just fine."

When Soriano's willingness to volunteer for the corner outfield spots was conveyed to Piniella, the manager smiled and said:

"He's a great kid. He's going to do, within reason, anything that we want him to do. But I don't anticipate talking to him about moving. I think we'll start him there, leave him there and let him get better there."

Soriano displayed his multitude of offensive talents in a 9-3 victory over the Seattle Mariners on Thursday, with three hits, including a triple. And he had a stolen base.

"You know one good thing about this young man, he comes to the ballpark every day with a great disposition to play," Piniella said.

Prior's status has been an ongoing saga with the Cubs since his magnificent 18-victory performance in 2003. Over the next three seasons a dispiriting array of injuries has limited him to that same number of victories. The difference with the Prior issue this spring is that the Cubs have given themselves other viable rotation options.

Prior is healthy and is now working on his mechanics. To that end, he is scheduled to work in a Minor League intrasquad game on Friday. It is distinctly possible that, when the regular season opens, Prior will remain for a time in extended Spring Training. But it is also distinctly possible that this development would not be crushing to the Cubs' hopes.

The Cubs are not short of viable candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation.

"We've got [Wade] Miller who's throwing the ball well, we've got this kid [Angel] Guzman, who's throwing the ball well here," Piniella said. "We've got enough depth. You know, Miller, the other day touched 90 [mph] in Tucson, and he's got a good breaking ball and this is not the easiest place in the world to throw breaking pitches. He used his changeup well. And the kid, Guzman, has probably thrown the ball as well as anybody we have in camp."

So, unlike in other springs, there is no particular rush with Prior, no particular feeling of sink-or-swim attached to his performance.

"That's the big thing, what we're trying to do here is to get him ready without having to put a timetable on it," Piniella said. "We don't need to put a timetable on it. We've got other people.

"I think Mark will know when he's throwing the ball well. And we'll know when he's throwing the ball well. We've got plenty of time. We'll just have to play this thing out and see how it works."

The tantalizing thing with Prior, of course, is that this is not just another pitcher perpetually on the mend. The hope always remains that he will recapture the health and mastery that he had so early in his career.

"He's doing everything that every other pitcher has been asked to do, so from a health standpoint he's ready to go," Piniella said. "That hasn't been the case in the past. Now, does he need to work on a little mechanical stuff? Probably so. The final thing is, when he's ready, he's ready. I know that Mark's been working hard, I know that he's healthy. He's just got to get better and he knows it. I've got confidence in him that he will. Will he be ready for the start of the season? That I can't tell you. What's so hard on him, what's so hard on everybody, is that he was so good."

What might be hard on everybody else in the National League Central this season is that the Cubs could be very good. Look around. Derrek Lee, when healthy, is one of the most productive hitters in the game. Cesar Izturis, when healthy, is one of the best defensive shortstops in the game.

Kerry Wood, who will be in the bullpen and who has changed to the body type of much more slender man, remains, like Prior, a figure of considerable potential. He currently has a strained right triceps, although Piniella referred to this as "a minor setback." If healthy, he could be an obvious boost to the bullpen. But again, at least the Cubs come to this moment not depending on him to be a rotation regular.

The Cubs have taken pains and have expended funds and have greatly improved their chances. Their 2007 optimism is more substantial than the typical garden variety rose-colored visions of spring in Arizona.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.