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Projected Lineup

2B Bobby
Hill

3B Mark
Bellhorn

RF Sammy
Sosa

LF Moises
Alou

1B Hee
Choi
/ Eric Karros
SS Alex
Gonzalez

CF Corey
Patterson

C Damian
Miller

Rotation

Kerry
Wood

Mark
Prior

Matt
Clement

Shawn
Estes

Carlos
Zambrano

Closer

Antonio
Alfonseca
/ Mike
Remlinger

Of the million things Cubs fans can blame when they look back on why 2003 wasn’t
the year they finally won the World Series, health won’t be one of them. In
fact, for at least the last decade, trainer Dave Tumbas has kept Cubs’ health
concerns out of the picture more than most teams in baseball. The one major
injury during that time was Kerry Wood’s arm
trouble
; but as much as people look to Wood’s usage during his rookie
season, the more likely culprit was his usage during high school. As far as the
rest of the team, the injuries suffered have been setbacks they could expect and
plan for. It’s fine to have someone like Moises Alou or Rondell White on the
roster if there’s an adequate backup plan. The difference between the Cubs with
Alou and the Brewers with Jeffrey Hammonds is that not only do the Cubs plan on
Alou playing only 120 games, they paid him according to this plan.

The same holds true for a pitching staff–if there’s injury risk embedded in
your rotation, be sure to have some options. Again, the Cubs have been
constructed in a way where an injury or two–even a traumatic injury–would not
be fatal to their hopes of winning or their long-term plans. A pitcher like Juan
Cruz will coast along in the bullpen, awaiting an opportunity to show he can
still start when the inevitable injury, scheduling quirk, or even suspension
occurs.

There’s as much green on this Team Health Report as there is on the outfield
wall in June. Alou is a known significant injury risk and he’ll be backed up by
some combination of Troy O’Leary and a defensive type like Tom Goodwin. I’ll
keep a red light on Alou due to age as well as history, but given just his
normal injuries, he should be more productive than he was last season. Alou was
never able to stay healthy for more than 30 days in 2002, and throughout his
career, he has always needed momentum behind him to be effective.

Alex Gonzalez remains the starter at shortstop despite being the same
disappointing player he was in Toronto–his balky legs don’t help either.
Already, he’s come up a bit lame in spring training, and it appears that he’ll
need some time off. Ramon Martinez should see some time in the field as a
result. With last year’s leg problems, Gonzalez’s power disappeared and his
baserunning went to nil, making his low OBP intolerable. Players of this type
have a tendency to fade quickly, and hamstrings also tend to become chronic
problems, so Gonzalez gets the yellow light with gusto.

The fact that the Cubs seem all but injury-free won’t matter if one player gets
injured. Just like Kerry Wood before him–and a countless number of can’t miss,
lead us to the Promised Land prospects before him–Mark Prior has come to
symbolize the hopes and dreams of the Bleacher Bums. His 136-pitch start on August 4th against
the Rockies
jumps off the Game Log,
screaming that the Cubs learned nothing from Wood’s misfortunes. Was this start
damaging to Prior? Clearly, the game meant nothing, and allowing Prior to
“finish what he started” seems meaningless in the context of his
career and the Cubs’ pennant chances by last August.

A key point of the pitcher abuse
study
by Rany Jazayerli and Keith Woolner was that PAP score refers to the
chance of loss of short-term effectiveness. Despite a start that reaches into
the highest PAP category, Prior not only did not lose short-term effectiveness
(three of his next five starts resulted in game scores over 60) but he lost no
velocity, either within a single game or from start to start. Using the radar
readings from Prior’s start as provided by FoxSports Net’s telecast of the
game–which we can consider consistent, if not accurate–Prior threw 94 mph in
the first inning and 93 in the ninth, hardly an indicator of fatigue. When
Prior’s season was ended by a hamstring injury, it was a positive from many
standpoints; but was he headed down the same path as Kerry Wood?

The risk factors for Prior are clear. He’s a 22-year-old pitcher who has amassed
high pitch counts. He has pitched at several levels in one year. Three managers,
none of whom have a particularly low-stress approach to handling their starters,
led him through his rookie season. In his favor, Prior has exceptional
mechanics. I’ve heard more than one scout describe him as “digitally
enhanced,” meaning that his delivery is so pure, it looks as if it was
straight out of some baseball
Matrix
. Prior’s legs give him an amazing base, reminiscent of Roger Clemens
or Tom Seaver. Called “Calfzilla”–a nickname we can only hope doesn’t
stick–Prior’s compact, leg-drive motion and arsenal puts a minimum of stress on
his arm.

Prior is not as reliant on his curve as Wood was in his first year. Most of his
strikeouts occurred using the fastball as the ‘out pitch.’ Prior has a more
mature body, a more complete understanding of pitching due to his time in
college, and the benefit of what looks like a much more stable regime in
Wrigley. Dusty Baker and Mark Rothschild will need to monitor Prior’s workload,
mechanics and velocity to keep their phenom healthy and dominating the National
League.

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