Prior Commitment: Watch and Learn

Feb 17, 2002

By RICK GANO
AP Sports Writer

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - Mark Prior winds up his 6-foot-5 frame and with a smoothand effortless motion delivers the baseball toward the plate, producing afamiliar smack in the catcher's mitt.

At age 20, the right-hander who's been called one of the greatest collegepitchers ever will spend the next six weeks showing the Chicago Cubs what theygot with the No. 2 pick in last year's draft.

Whether that means he'll make the huge leap from college ball and itsaluminum bats straight to the majors is still to be determined. But early incamp, as he works out with his new teammates like 20-game winner Jon Lieber,Prior is enjoying the ride.

'I'll try and pick up some things from the older guys and kind of take iteasy. I'm trying to make the team, but I'm not going to do it on the first day.I'll go out there and do a lot of listening and observing and kind of takeeverything in stride,' Prior said.

'That's the way I'm approaching it, do what I can do and try my best. I'mnot going to try and be nervous, just be confident, although I'm sure therewill be a little nerves going in the first couple of games.'

Prior was 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA, just 18 walks and 202 strikeouts in 138innings for Southern Cal last season, leading the Trojans to the College WorldSeries.

As a junior, he won seven national player of the year awards. The Cubssigned him to a five-year, $10.5 million deal.

'He's got probably the best college command I've seen in the past 10years,' Cubs scouting director John Stockstill said when the Cubs draftedPrior. 'We felt Kerry Wood was a can't-miss. Turns out he was. We feel Prior'sclose to that.'

Prior held batters to a .201 average and had 10 or more strikeouts in 13 ofhis starts. He had one seven-start span in which he struck out 86 and walkednone in 57 innings.

'His mechanics are just great, the ball just jumps out of his hand andthere is not a lot of effort,' Cubs manager Don Baylor said.

'The only thing he is probably lacking right now is facing big leaguehitters and he'll get that opportunity this spring. If he gets guys out, I knowhe will be a guy we talk about a lot this spring.'

Veteran catcher Joe Girardi caught Prior on the first day of workouts andsaid the Cubs will 'just let him get his feet wet. He's very unassuming andseems like a great kid. He's just trying to fit in.'

One adjustment that should favor Prior will be facing hitters with woodbats, instead of aluminum ones. Now when he jams a batter, he can break his batand get an out, whereas in college the same pitch could result in a flared hit.

'We just have to wait and see,' Baylor said of Prior's chances of beingthe team's fifth starter.

'We know the projections are probably that midseason take a look at him,keep him in reserve. It's great to have depth like that.'

New Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild said he's eager to see what Priorcan do and see how close he might be to pitching in the big leagues.

'A lot of teams thought he was ready right now. I think that's rushing it abit because he's an important part of the future,' Rothschild said.

'But I wouldn't discount anything. He's got some experience, but you can'treplace the professional experience. I'd like to have him in the major leaguesand win 20 games, but that's something that we've got to get to. We'll do whatwe have to to get him there.'

Prior hasn't pitched to live hitters since the College World Series lastJune. The time off allowed him to return to school, and now he's only onesemester shy of getting his business degree.

He's not sure if he'll start the season with the Cubs or in the minors. Andhe doesn't seem fazed either way.

'I feel like I've been playing at a high-powered school as far ascompetition. I've gotten a lot of exposure and had to deal with a lot ofthings,' Prior said.

'No one knows if you're ready until you are there, if I make the jump or ifI struggle. I'm going to struggle anyway, whether I go to the minors thisseason or not. I'm not worried about that. I'm worrying about having a goodtime and learning.'

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