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Inside Baseball

April 01, 2002
April 01, 2002

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April 1, 2002

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Inside Baseball

A Matter Of Time
Look for the Cubs to call up righthander Mark Prior, 21, sooner
rather than later

This is an article from the April 1, 2002 issue Original Layout

Cubs manager Don Baylor feels like a 16-year-old whose dad just
parked a new Ferrari in the driveway, admonished the kid not to
drive it and then went away for the weekend: Baylor knows he
shouldn't touch Chicago's new high-performance vehicle, but man,
it's tempting to do so. "He has the stuff to pitch up here, no
question," Baylor says when asked if he would like to see
21-year-old righthander Mark Prior in the rotation. Prior's
professional experience, however, was limited to the 47 hitters
he'd faced in spring training through Sunday. "Your heart tells
you one thing, but his inexperience tells you another."

Chicago will resist temptation--for now. Prior, the second pick in
last summer's amateur draft, out of Southern Cal, will start the
season in the minor leagues with the Double A West Tenn Diamond
Jaxx, but don't be surprised to see him at Wrigley Field sooner
rather than later.

The Cubs weren't anticipating such a difficult decision six weeks
ago. Prior, who went 15-1 with a 1.69 ERA during his junior
season with the Trojans, stayed home in Bonita, Calif., last
summer while the details of his five-year, $10.5 million contract
were worked out. Instead of pitching in the Arizona Fall League,
he returned to school to take classes toward his business degree.
That meant Prior hadn't thrown in a game for eight months when
spring training began; Chicago figured it would let him get his
feet wet in the major league camp and then ship him out to let
him develop quietly.

Prior blew that plan away in his second spring outing, when he
struck out seven in three innings and caused Jerry Manuel, the
manager of that day's opponents, the White Sox, to gush that Curt
Schilling was the only other pitcher that his team had faced this
spring with such electric stuff.

Prior came back to earth (a 9.00 ERA over his first 10 innings,
though he racked up 16 strikeouts), but Chicago remains dazzled
by his pitcher-perfect, 6'5", 225-pound frame, smooth motion,
94-mph fastball and sharp curve. The coaching staff has also been
impressed with the development of his changeup, a pitch he
struggled with in college. Working with pitching coach Larry
Rothschild, Prior has turned his circle change into a weapon.
"He's a very coachable kid," says Baylor. "You can't tell by the
[low-key] way he acts how much potential he has."

That potential will no doubt launch a Prior Watch in Chicago as
fans anticipate a repeat of the mania that attended Kerry Wood's
arrival in 1998. In fact, part of the Cubs' reasoning in sending
Prior down was to give him time to adjust to being a professional
before making a high-profile big league debut. Chicago has depth
in its rotation--righthander Julian Tavarez, who went 10-9 last
year, was awarded the fifth spot last week--so the clamor can be
ignored for now. If one of those starters falters, Prior can
expect a promotion. "He'll get his time," says Baylor, who
envisions Prior's throwing about 160 innings in the big leagues
this year. "It could be a month into the season."

Will Kent Be Hit For the Cycle?
Giants' Injury Controversy

As of Sunday the Giants' brass knew that second baseman Jeff
Kent's broken left wrist was going to prevent him from playing on
Opening Day. Exactly how he broke the wrist was still up in the
air. Kent was sticking to the story he gave after he was injured
on March 1, that he fell while washing his pickup truck, but he
wasn't categorically denying reports that he'd actually suffered
the fracture when he crashed while popping wheelies on a
motorcycle near the Giants' spring complex in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Because Kent isn't likely to miss much of the season--he's
expected back in the lineup later this month--the wash-or-wheelie
mystery will probably amount to little more than comic relief,
but he was flirting with more than physical harm if he was riding
a motorcycle. The standard major league contract includes a
clause prohibiting a player from participating in a long list of
activities, including skiing, skydiving, spelunking, other
professional sports and, yes, motorcycle riding. (Clubs make
guaranteed multiyear deals even more restrictive.)

Most teams look the other way as long as players keep their
participation in forbidden pastimes low key, but a club has the
right to lean on a player who violates such a clause. "Depending
on who the player is, you would probably try to suspend him
without pay until he's able to play," says Cardinals general
manager Walt Jocketty. "The medical bills would be his
responsibility."

The key phrase is "depending on who the player is." San
Francisco, which was investigating Kent's accident, is unlikely
to take action against Kent, the 2000 National League MVP and
one of the Giants' most popular players. Outfielder Ron Gant
(now with the Padres) wasn't as lucky--in 1994 the Braves voided
$4.6 million of his salary and released him after he crashed his
dirt bike and suffered a broken leg.

Players complain that the clauses limit their freedom, but that's
the price of guaranteed, multimillion-dollar deals. "It's hard to
say to a team, 'You should let my client ski, but I want you to
guarantee us $40 million,'" says one agent. "I can't say I
disagree with the clubs."

Some New Rules Are in Force
Speeding Up the Game

Memo to relievers: Add a few more wind sprints to your daily
regimen as the season approaches because you'll need some foot
speed when entering games this year. Last week the commissioner's
office, through discipline czar Bob Watson, again decreed that
games must be played in less time. In 1998 games lasted an
average of 2:47; by 2000 that figure was up to a record 2:58.
(Last season, when the larger strike zone was enforced and
scoring dipped, the average time decreased by four minutes.)
Quickening the pace of play has been a priority of Bud Selig's
for years. What makes Watson think this attempt will work?
"Because this time," he says, "the office has some teeth."

For the first time the commissioner will fine teams that don't
adhere to the new guidelines, many of which amount to more
rigorous enforcement of rules that have been on the books since
1998. When no one's on base, the pitcher must deliver the ball
within 12 seconds of the batter's entering the box. A hitter must
leave two bats in the on-deck circle so he can get new wood
quickly if his bat breaks. The music that accompanies a hitter's
stroll to the plate can blare for just 10 seconds. And the rule
that could have the greatest effect: Pitching changes must take
no more than 2 1/2 minutes. If a reliever uses a minute to get
from bullpen to mound, he'll have just 1:30 to catch his breath
and toss his eight warmup pitches.

To nab slowpokes, Watson will have Major League Baseball
employees monitor games from the stands. The penalty for
sluggish teams? "We're not talking about $100," says Watson. "It
will be enough to get their attention, and the amount will go up
for repeat offenders."

The goal is to get American League games down to an average of
2:50 and National League games to 2:40. The new measures will
help, but they don't address the primary game-lengthening
culprits: hitters who take forever to get set in the box and
commercial breaks between innings. Hitters are still allowed to
endlessly adjust equipment as long as they do it, as the rule
says, "close to home plate." Television timeouts--2:05 for local
broadcasts, 2:25 for national--will remain as is. "Those times
have been the same for years, and still games are getting
longer," says Watson. "Besides, TV pays the freight."

COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN The second pick in last June's draft, Prior has shown power and poise beyond his years.COLOR PHOTO: ERIC RISBERG/AP Kent's broken wrist may cost him more than time.

the Hot corner

Many teams take advantage of the frequent off days in April to go
with a four-man rotation early in the season. Not the Red Sox,
who are looking for ways to prevent the fragile Pedro Martinez
from breaking down for the fourth straight season. Boston plans
to give its ace five days of rest, instead of the usual four,
between his first three starts.... Cubs righthander Kerry Wood,
who had elbow surgery three years ago and missed a month last
season with shoulder tendinitis, has stopped throwing the
sweeping slider that dazzled hitters when he came up in 1998.
Instead he will use a cut fastball and a sharper curveball to
place less stress on his arm.... In spring training Dodgers
lefthander Kazuhisa Ishii has worked with a personal trainer and
adopted a rigorous throwing program to more closely match the
heavier workload he was accustomed to in Japan. Instead of
throwing just once in the bullpen between starts, he took only
one day off from mound work, a pattern he may continue during the
season.