Prior commitment

MESA, Ariz. – At 8:15 Friday morning, Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior strolled across the team's facility here at Fitch Park, spring training and his career having gone backwards on him.

Thirty Cubs minor leaguers, mostly from Double A, and their coaches had been dragged out of bed for an early-morning intrasquad game to keep Jason Marquis on schedule and, more importantly, to provide something for Prior to be proud of.

No one really knows what to make of Prior anymore, though, and with the likelihood that he'll start the season either in Triple A or on the disabled list, it's becoming apparent he won't be helping the Cubs' renovated roster anytime soon.

There are rumblings of a "loose" shoulder. Scouts wonder why he won't – or can't – finish his pitches, the reason, they say, his fastball lacks pop and his breaking ball is not trustworthy. They ask if he is hurt, as if they've missed something in the papers. They wonder if the impediment is his shoulder or elbow, which would preclude full extension, or his head, which has given his shoulder strict instructions to be wary.

What they do know is what anyone can see: Prior, at 26, looks different than he once did on a baseball field. He holds himself as a man who once was, and knows it, and hates it. The ball no longer leaves his hand as though possessed, and now he's living on a recent past during which he's missed almost 40 starts over the past three seasons because of injury, and posted a 7.21 ERA in nine starts last season and an 18.90 ERA in two previous spring appearances.

So, rather than have Prior work out some of these things in a full (spring-training) ballpark against (mostly) big-league hitters, the Cubs sent him over to their minor-league complex, half-jokingly requested that reporters stay away in order to lighten the burden (casting a half-Rick Ankiel, half-Sidd Finch drama to the morning), and hoped for progress.

Prior probably hadn't been expected to pitch a game at 8:30 in the morning since he was in Little League. But, he went along with the Cubs' plan to shake the Etch-A-Sketch, to start over from the mid-minor leagues, and he pitched four scoreless innings.

With most of the organization's decision-makers, along with the team physician, staring down from a perch behind home plate, Prior threw 59 pitches. Thirty-two were strikes or swung at.

His curveball was decent, better. His fastball, which Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild claimed ranged from 85-90 mph, with "a lot of 85s, 86s and 87s," was erratic, often well above the strike zone and, again, suggesting he was not finishing the pitch, for whatever reason. Once, Prior left the mound re-enacting his finish from the wrist down.

He insisted there was improvement.

"You know, just throwing it," he said. "Trusting that it'll do what it's supposed to do, not really worry about the results, what's going to happen after you throw it."

The fastball, in particular, he said, was "not bad."

"I located that a little bit better," he said. "I threw down a lot better in the strike zone than I had. Threw some balls inside to lefties, knee-high, a lot better than I did the last few days. So, I think for the most part I was throwing down, you know, getting the ball down a lot better. Threw some good changeups, actually, too. … And I went upstairs a couple times on purpose. That makes it a little bit easier."

To Prior's credit, or revealing his stubbornness, which would be something anyway, he still talked about being ready for early April. But, the final place in the rotation will probably go to Wade Miller, and Prior will toil in extended spring, perhaps pitch through a minor-league rehabilitation assignment, then force a big-leagues-or-Iowa decision in late April or so.

And, really, what else are the Cubs to do? It's about two years early to abandon a 26-year-old pitcher who won 18 games 3½ years ago, whose career ERA – even with last season's mess – is 3.51.

His mechanics are still in there somewhere, clouded perhaps by caution or pain or insecurities. While he doesn't make any of this look enjoyable, neither has he curled up on the mound and wished it all away. And, he's still on the mound, which is a start, and so far he's thinking it's better than the alternative.

"You know, it's fun to play," he said. "It's not fun sitting in the trainers' room, I know that. Pitching's a lot better than sitting around, so I'll take it. No matter how it is, I'd rather be pitching than not."