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Saturday, March 19, 2005
Cubs rotation will turn heads if Wood, Prior can get healthy

By Peter Gammons
Special to

March 19

MESA, Ariz. -- Dusty Baker doesn't know. Neither does pitching coach Larry Rothschild, general manager Jim Hendry, Kerry Wood, or Mark Prior. But what they believe is that after Carlos Zambrano, Greg Maddux and probably Ryan Dempster start the Cubs' season-opening series in Arizona, Wood will pitch the home opener against the Brewers on April 8. Then, when they need a fourth starter April 12, it will be Prior.

Carlos Zambrano
Carlos Zambrano won 16 games last season. The Cubs expect bigger things this year from the soon-to-be 23-year-old.

They understand some of the skepticism, because Prior's Achilles injury dragged on so long. "But it's not like we're trying to hide something and two weeks from now say, 'Prior's having surgery,' " Hendry says. Wood threw Saturday and threw well. They want to get Prior through the swelling in his elbow, then get him back on a mound in a few days.

"This is something he may have to learn to deal with regularly," says Rothschild, who recognizes that the torque Prior creates throwing his curveball creates significant strain. "But it shouldn't be a problem. Medication will calm it down."

As Zambrano pitched six of the most dominant innings any pitcher has thrown this spring, the feeling around the Cubs is far different than it might seem from a distance.

"This is a very good team," Baker says.

"There's such a positive feeling here that it makes it fun to come to the park every day," says Nomar Garciaparra, who is playing like it's 1999 (.357, 27, 104).

"I know some people look at the players who left and wonder about this team," Jeromy Burnitz says, "but there's an air here that this is a team where winning counts and is expected. I believe I've come to the right place at the right time in my career."

"Woody and Mark are obviously very important to how we finish," Baker says, "but we believe they're going to be fine. And the things some people worry about aren't the problems they're made out to be."

With Dempster throwing extraordinary well -- and, please, put your stats away, because in Arizona sinkers don't sink, breaking balls roll, the infields are layered with asphalt and flies carry like those balls MLB uses in what used to be known as Home Run Derby -- the feeling is that after ace Zambrano, the five-man rotation will be the best in the league if Wood and Prior get 55 starts between them. It's unfortunate that Wood got hurt last year because he was headed to a major turn in his career. The worst thing that ever happened to him was the 20-strikeout game, because it made him into Dr. K; as he defeated the Braves twice in the 2003 playoffs, it was clear he was learning to be the pitcher he can and will be.

Next question: the bullpen.

Hendry took a beating for not acquiring a closer in the offseason. He thought he had Danny Kolb from the Brewers, only to have Doug Melvin move Kolb out of the division. Hendry wasn't interested in Ugueth Urbina, the Cubs wouldn't give Troy Percival two years, and Danys Baez wasn't considered the answer.

Rothschild now thinks Joe Borowski is back to where he was in 2003, when he had 33 saves. Rothschild was walking across the field Friday as Borowski was throwing a simulated game -- and couldn't believe his eyes. "I thought, 'Wow, he's throwing the heck out of the ball,' " Rothschild says. "He did for three innings. It was by far the best yet. Enough to close. I'm really encouraged." As they are by Mike Remlinger's comeback ("I'm throwing the ball much better than any time last spring because my shoulder is healthy again"), Chad Fox and, of course, LaTroy Hawkins.

Next question: the lineup.

To begin with, for all of their 235 home runs, the Cubs were a mediocre seventh in the league in runs, the result of bad situational hitting and some dreadful baserunning. The infield should be worth 100 to 120 home runs. Aramis Ramirez, touted by Baker as an MVP candidate and praised by teammates as their smartest and best situational hitter, has increased his homers from 18 to 27 to 36, and he's still only 27. Garciaparra? "It's amazing what health will do," he says, looking as he did before he hurt his wrist. First baseman Derrek Lee is a star.

And while Burnitz, Todd Hollandsworth and the massive Jason Dubois may not put up the 74 homers of Alou and Sosa, Baker doesn't seem concerned. "Burnitz has the best work habits on the team," Dusty says. "At the plate, in the field ... he will bring some energy to everyone out there." Burnitz will bring defense, which was lacking.

One of the most important elements to the Cubs' season is Corey Patterson, whom they try to push to produce. Some of Patterson's numbers are fine, like the 24 homers amid the 63 extra-base hits. But then there are the matters of the .320 on-base percentage and 168 strikeouts in the leadoff spot. "I'm just working all spring on moving the ball around better, especially going the other way, making better contact and hitting more line drives," Patterson says. "I think I'm making progress. I have to be more consistent and not let the little slumps [turn into] such long ones."

Last year's Cubs were flawed by some stars' lack of attention to detail. They were the victims of a brutal September schedule, when they wore out down the stretch the way the Marlins wore out. They had Wood and Prior for only 43 starts. They didn't get Garciaparra until Aug. 1, and he was still hurt and unable to do the things he has done this spring.

Are the Cubs the favorites to win the World Series? Not this time around. But let them make the determination on Wood and Prior, and if the right-handers get healthy for the months that count -- August, September, October -- they might be the team no other team wants to see in the tournament.