Cubs Excited About Prior Engagement

As Dusty Baker works on the mind-set, the transformation of the Chicago Cubs from lovable losers -- a description Baker employs disdainfully -- to consistent contenders will hinge heavily, perhaps, on how Mark Prior and an impressive young mound set perform.

Does it start with pitching?

"Doesn't it always?" said Baker, the new Chicago manager, snapping off the names of almost a dozen young Cub pitchers, saying he hasn't seen a better group of young arms since he was with the Dodgers almost 25 years ago.

He referred to an era in which the Dodger assembly line rolled out Rick Sutcliffe, Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Sid Fernandez, Ted Power, Steve Howe, John Franco, John Wetteland and Joe Beckwith, among others. And almost all of them, Baker said, "had that long, lean Dodger body that you look for in a pitcher." He is now seeing that look in the Cubs' camp.

"Somebody did a [great] scouting job here," he said. "Not only in the States, but in Latin America too."

Not all of those long, lean bodies will be ready to wear Cub uniforms when the season starts in three weeks, but the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Prior, in only his second pro season, will.

As catcher Damian Miller said of the former USC star, "I've never seen a 22-year-old kid who is so far ahead of where he is supposed to be or where you would think he'd be. We have a couple guys here with a chance to become bona-fide superstars."

Miller knows superstars.

Obtained from the Arizona Diamondbacks in an off-season trade, he frequently caught Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling and insists he hasn't become a little loopy from taking foul balls off his facemask.

He insists that Prior and Kerry Wood, 25, who will join Matt Clement, 28, and Carlos Zambrano, 21, at the front end of a promising rotation, have the potential to reach that Johnson-Schilling galaxy.

"Their stuff is as good as I've seen," Miller said. "It's just as good as, if not better than, [Johnson and Schilling's]. The difference is in the mental edge. Mark and Kerry are still learning how to make their pitch when they need it, learning how to get the strikeout and double play when they need it, learning how to harness their stuff and not beat themselves.

"When they get total command, it's lights out."

Wood, of course, already carries a big league resume. He reestablished his career after missing the 1999 season because of elbow reconstruction, having struck out 217 batters in each of the last two seasons with earned-run averages of 3.36 and 3.66.

Prior is just getting started and has to prove he can consistently find the light switch.

The former Trojan was the second player chosen in the 2001 June draft, after the Minnesota Twins chose a less expensive top pick. Prolonged negotiations ultimately produced a five-year, $10.5-million contract, including a $4-million signing bonus, but wiped out any chance of his pitching professionally that summer. He broke in at the double-A level last year and started only nine minor league games before being promoted to the majors. He went 6-6 with the Cubs, posting a 3.32 ERA in 19 starts, striking out 147 batters in 116 2/3 innings.

Now, with the hiring of Baker and the addition of starting pitcher Shawn Estes and relievers Mike Remlinger, Dave Veres and Mark Guthrie, there is optimism beyond the usual in the camp of the lovable losers, much of it pinned to the four young starters. Prior accepts that with the same matter-of-fact maturity with which he dismisses his limited experience.

"First of all," he said, "as much as I'd like to be dominant with every start, I want to be effective and pitch for a winner, and no one puts more pressure on me to pitch well than I do. I think that's the way it is for most people. The internal pressure is far more than what other people can put on you.

"Secondly, I don't feel like I'm being rushed. Playing at a quality level, as I did at USC my last two years, going to the College World Series twice, experiencing media interviews and a lot of the pressures that accompany all of that was the equivalent, in my mind, of pitching at the Class-A and double-A levels. The Cubs invested a lot of money in me and wouldn't have done that if they didn't think I'd be ready relatively soon. That can backfire if it doesn't work out, but I'm confident they've given me enough time to develop. I mean, it would be foolish for me to say that I don't have things left to learn, but that goes on forever. Guys are playing at 35 and 40 and still learning."

Prior recently donated $200,000 to the USC baseball program. Said Cub pitching coach Larry Rothschild, who has allowed Prior to maintain some of the workout schedule he developed at USC and in training with former big league pitcher and coach Tom House: "I don't think Mark would have been helped as much as he would have been bored with any more time in the minor leagues. He's going to get better by pitching against major league competition because that's where his talent level belongs."

The Cubs, of course, are banking on improvement in all areas to aid their starters. Prior polished off the Angels with three shutout innings the other day and said he was seeing a major improvement in another area.

He said the "separatist" atmosphere that permeated the team last year has been replaced by a "feeling of togetherness, guys now pulling for each other."

It may be too soon to know if the mound set can turn their promise to reality, but it may not be too soon to conclude that Baker is already affecting the mind-set.

Bake on Bake

The task confronting Baker is ominous. In three of the last four years, the Cubs have finished 30 or more games behind, last in the National League Central or next to last. Three of the four infield positions are unsettled, and left fielder Moises Alou is trying to bounce back from a disappointing season.

The facts are what they are, which is why Baker insisted on a fourth year on his contract instead of settling for three.

"I talked to Groove and I know what happened to him last year," Baker said, referring to Don Baylor, fired by the Cubs last year in his third season. "I know this is going to take time."

He doesn't have a timetable, but he is confident he can get it done.

"Am I the savior and messiah?" he said. "No. Can I make a difference? Most definitely. How long a time? Soon as possible. Is it tomorrow? I don't know that either."

What he does know is that he's becoming more comfortable in his new uniform. He's clearing his mind of the "emotional roller coaster" that was the World Series and his departure from the San Francisco Giants amid an apparently irreparable relationship with managing general partner Peter Magowan -- they finally met privately Thursday -- and the lack of an offer to him after 10 mostly successful seasons.

"I was told that I wasn't adamant enough about coming back," Baker said. "But was it my job to be adamant? Was it my job to hire myself?"

The ending, he said, "certainly could have been handled more graciously," but "there had been too many things said, too much water under the bridge." He is convinced that "this is where the Lord wanted me to go and this is the team that wanted me the most. They waited for me. Others didn't wait."

The New York Mets didn't, and the Seattle Mariners showed no interest -- "That shocked me," Baker said -- but father and son are at peace.

Darren Baker, the 4-year-old son and sidelined bat boy, trotted into his father's office wearing a Cub uniform the other day. Baker said, "I told him, 'Darren, what happened was between me and the Giants, not you and the Giants, and you can still wear your Giants uniform if you want.' He said, 'No, Dad, I'm a Cub now.' "

That's clearly the way it is with the Baker clan.

Say What, Sammy?

Let's see, Sammy Sosa reports with the other Cub regulars for the first time in several years and says he is showing respect for the new manager, even speaks up during Baker's initial meeting to call for unity.

Now, however, Sosa is intimating that he might exercise an out clause in his four-year, $70.5-million contract and become a free agent at the end of the season.

The contract has two years and an option remaining, and Sosa said, "I'm hoping we have a great season and that I will finish my career here, but I'm not just a baseball player. I am also a businessman who has to take care of business."

It's doubtful a businessman would give up a guaranteed $37.5 million for the new uncertainty of the market, but maybe it's all about prompting renegotiation aimed at buying out the out clause.

Agent Adam Katz has had recent discussions with club President Andy MacPhail, who displayed a bit of sarcasm in saying that Katz "has reminded me how the contract is structured. I was grateful for him reminding me."

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