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Cubs’ Prior Gets Ready for Season

February 17, 2002

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

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

Whether that means he’ll make the huge leap from college ball and its aluminum bats straight to the majors is still to be determined. But early in camp, 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 it easy. 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 take everything in stride,″ Prior said.

``That’s the way I’m approaching it, do what I can do and try my best. I’m not going to try and be nervous, just be confident, although I’m sure there will 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 138 innings for Southern Cal last season, leading the Trojans to the College World Series.

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

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

Prior held batters to a .201 average and had 10 or more strikeouts in 13 of his starts. He had one seven-start span in which he struck out 86 and walked none in 57 innings.

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

``The only thing he is probably lacking right now is facing big league hitters and he’ll get that opportunity this spring. If he gets guys out, I know he will be a guy we talk about a lot this spring.″

Veteran catcher Joe Girardi caught Prior on the first day of workouts and said the Cubs will ``just let him get his feet wet. He’s very unassuming and seems like a great kid. He’s just trying to fit in.″

One adjustment that should favor Prior will be facing hitters with wood bats, instead of aluminum ones. Now when he jams a batter, he can break his bat and 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 being the 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 Prior can 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 a bit 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’t replace the professional experience. I’d like to have him in the major leagues and win 20 games, but that’s something that we’ve got to get to. We’ll do what we have to to get him there.″

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

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

``I feel like I’ve been playing at a high-powered school as far as competition. I’ve gotten a lot of exposure and had to deal with a lot of things,″ Prior said.

``No one knows if you’re ready until you are there, if I make the jump or if I struggle. I’m going to struggle anyway, whether I go to the minors this season or not. I’m not worried about that. I’m worrying about having a good time and learning.″

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