Prior threw three innings Wednesday against the Colorado Rockies -- totaling 10 1/3 this spring -- but the team had made its decision before the game. The Cubs open the season with Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis, Rich Hill and Wade Miller in the rotation. They have the luxury of giving Prior time to get his mechanics better and his arm strength up.
On Thursday, as the Cubs were getting ready for their final Cactus League game, Class A Minor Leaguers Matt Camp and Matt Matulia were using Prior's locker to stash their stuff. Prior was taking a few days before reporting to Fitch Park, where he'll join his new teammates. His mission now?
"Just go down and keep pitching," Prior said. "That's something I didn't do at all last year, is pitch. I want to get on a regular routine, get my work in on the side, and get in games. I believe that's what they're looking for me [to do] is to keep working. Last year wasn't an easy year for me physically. It was trying to get side work in. It's been nice to go through camp and be on a normal schedule. I think they want me to keep doing that."
Prior had problems with his right shoulder in 2006 and was able to make nine starts before he was shut down. An 18-game winner and All-Star in 2003, it's going to be quite a change of pace for him to be based in Des Moines with the Minor League team. Harkey knows. A first-round pick in 1987, he was 12-6 with a 3.26 ERA in 1990 with the Cubs. Injuries cut short his career and he finished with a 36-36 record.
"You go from being a Major League pitcher for one year, two years, three years, and having success, and then having to deal with the adversity is the toughest thing to deal with as a professional ballplayer," Harkey said Thursday.
Prior did maintain his sense of humor.
"I'm not going to compete any less just because of where I'm at," he said. "I'll go down and help that team win, and try to make the Triple-A All-Star team and maybe I'll get invited to the Futures Game or something. I'm still 26."
Harkey is 40, and in his first season as the Iowa pitching coach. He made 104 starts in his career. Prior has made 106.
"I'm assuming that Mark's first day here will be a lot like [Carlos] Marmol's first day here and [Roberto] Novoa's first day here," Harkey said of two other pitchers with big-league experience who were sent down to the Minors. "There will probably be a little more added anxiety because he hasn't been here in so long and he's had a lot of expectations placed upon him, a lot by himself. The biggest thing he can do is take this as a challenge. He hasn't been challenged for a long time.
"This will be a great learning experience for him if he's willing to accept it," Harkey said. "He'll learn a lot about what's more important, having to go back to the Minor Leagues and doing all the stuff all over again and get into that character, the character of a Minor League ballplayer."
Harkey said it will be easy to be positive about the experience.
"For him, he knows what he has to do," Harkey said. "I'm not going to follow him around like his leader or anything. Give him his work to do, and I'll be there to monitor it. That's the kind of relationship that we'll have early. How that relationship develops for how long he's there -- whether it's a week or a month or the whole year -- I don't concern myself with that."
Harkey has 12 other pitchers to keep an eye on, including Sean Marshall, Ryan O'Malley, Rocky Cherry and Clay Rapada.
"I'm not going to be constantly watching over him, making sure he's doing this, making sure he's a 'Minor Leaguer.' To me, that's totally irrelevant. He's a baseball player, he's a pitcher, he's a professional pitcher, he does this for a living, this is his job."
And that's the approach Prior is taking. He referred to himself often on Thursday as an "employee." His meeting with general manager Jim Hendry and manager Lou Piniella on Wednesday was one-sided -- management did the talking.
"I was fine with everything [Piniella] said," Prior said. "When you're an employee, you don't have a whole lot to say. I'm not going to get loud and start yelling. The decision's made, and you move on.
"I'm not going to sit there and fight it," he said. "I don't have a whole lot of control. When you get in a position when you have any kind of leverage, then you can maybe argue and find out what other options there are. When there are no other options, you accept it, and move on."
Is this a crossroads in his career?
"You don't know where the crossroads in your career are until your career is done," Prior said. "You show up every day and go to work whether it's in Des Moines or here or wherever. Part of playing is grinding it out through good times and bad times."
He feels he's close. He needed 60 pitches over three innings Wednesday, but didn't get much help from his defense. The three runs he gave up were unearned.
"I feel good, I think I'm ready, I think I can get guys out at this level," he said. "I think I've shown that the last two outings against two pretty decent ballclubs. I think my pitch count might not be as high as they'd like for a starter to go into the season. I can still get guys out. I don't think there's a question of whether I can get guys out. I think they want to see me go deeper in games. I can get guys out. I'll keep doing that wherever I'm at."
Piniella has spent most of Spring Training answering questions about Prior and Kerry Wood, who was expected to open the season on the disabled list for the second straight year.
"They've been important cogs here in this organization for a long time," Piniella said of the pair. "We said coming in that if we got them ready by Opening Day, it would be a bonus for us. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened, but it doesn't mean they can't help us sometime this summer. We're looking forward to that situation."