If the last spot in the Cubs rotation comes down to a choice between veteran Wade Miller and youngster Angel Guzman, then fans will be forced to be patient with Mark Prior.
Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Jason Marquis and Rich Hill have nailed down the first four spots, but the No. 5 competition is still open, with Prior scheduled to test himself in a game situation by the end of the week. Don't be surprised, however, if Prior eventually must be ticketed for extended spring training in Mesa, maybe even a rehabilitative start in DesMoines.
Prior remains the sentimental favorite not only because of his popularity but because of his potential as a rotation ace. But so far this spring Prior has surrendered seven runs, eight hits and five walks in 3.33 innings, as he continues to search for his natural motion. Assorted injuries, most recently shoulder trouble, limited him to just seven starts last year, six of them losses.
The fifth starter's spot need not be determined until mid-April at the earliest, giving Prior time to work on his mechanics before facing a possible demotion. Wildcat speculation sees Prior potentially available for a rehabilitation appearance in the Iowa Cubs April 13 opening day game with Nolan Ryan's Triple A Round Rock team, but "it's nothing that I'm counting on," team spokesman Jeff Lantz said.
It appears that with second baseman Eric Patterson and third baseman Scott Moore being cut by Chicago this week, the Iowa Cubs leadoff and 2-hole batters are in place, but the opening day starter "could be any one of eight guys," Lantz said.
Should Prior fail to be ready by mid-April, his eventual return to Chicago would likely push Marquis or another member of the rotation to the bullpen.
Prior had a strong outing with Iowa in a no-decision against the Nationals Triple A affiliate last June at New Orleans. He recorded 10 strikeouts while giving up only four hits and an unearned run over seven innings before returning to Chicago. But he was back on the disabled list for a month beginning Aug. 11, and wound up with a 1-6 record and a 7.21 ERA, quite a comedown for a pitcher who posted an 18-6 record with a 2.43 ERA just four years ago.