Baker may act Swift-ly with Prior

Mark Prior returns Friday.

So will the questions about Dusty Baker's tendency to push his best starting pitchers into the danger zone.

But Baker has not been reckless with every pitcher he's handled, and does not plan to be with Prior. In fact, if he sticks to the road map he has in mind, he will almost certainly be criticized at some point this summer for being too timid with Prior, who has missed the first two months of the season with a combination of a tender elbow and a sore Achilles tendon.

Baker offers one name as the precedent he will follow with Prior. It is Billy Swift, the former Maine Black Bear who won more than 11 games only once in a 13-year career (1985-98).

Listen carefully to what Baker says about Prior.

"We're going to limit his pitches the first few starts,'' Baker said. "Then I'm going to deal with him like Billy Swift. We'll kind of go on an honor system. I'll ask him how he feels.''

Swift's best season came working for Baker with the 1993 San Francisco Giants. He'd led the National League with a 2.08 ERA in '92 but tired at the end of the season, perhaps because he had three complete games. He wound up healthy enough only to make 22 starts in '92, and barely reached the 162-inning threshold necessary to qualify for the ERA title.

Baker found a way to jump his workload to 34 starts and 232 2/3 innings in '93. Swift won 21 games (one less than teammate John Burkett) and helped the Giants chase the Atlanta Braves to the last day of the season. The Giants won 103 games, one less than the Braves, in the last great pennant race.

Swift, who like Prior rarely had trouble throwing strikes, averaged 91.4 pitches per start that season. That's almost 23 less pitches per start than Prior had in 2003. His average of 114.2 pitches per start during the regular season was the most in the majors.

Swift threw less than 100 pitches in 25 of his 34 starts in 1993. He went over 110 pitches only twice, and never threw more than 118.

This careful handling is a sharp contrast to the way Baker has ridden his recent workhorses -- Livan Hernandez and Russ Ortiz with the Giants, and Kerry Wood and Prior with the Cubs. It's especially impressive how Baker was willing to turn crucial games over to his bullpen (specifically closer Rod Beck and set-up man Mike Jackson) down the stretch in '93.

In 1993, with the Giants trying to make up the four-game deficit they faced on Sept. 17, Baker lifted Swift after 92, 92 and 91 pitches in his last three starts. He did that even though Swift had allowed either one or zero runs in those starts.

Compare that how heavily Baker rode Prior and Wood (currently disabled with triceps tendinitis) down the stretch in 2003.

When Mark Prior returns, he'll be fresh, strong and invigorated. By September, he'll have logged far fewer innings than if he'd started the season healthy. And this could pay big dividends for the Cubs in the pennant race and postseason (if they get there).

To see how a fresh late-season arm can help a team, look no further than the impact of starter Josh Beckett on the Florida Marlins' march to the world championship last year.

Beckett, who missed two months in 2003 with a sprained elbow ligament, had an electrifying arm last postseason. He carried the Marlins with clutch performances in the NLCS vs. the Cubs and in the World Series vs. the Yankees. Florida would've had no chance of winning without Beckett.

One season, I started in the bullpen for the Los Angeles Dodgers for about the first two months, but when Ramon Martinez got hurt I moved into the rotation. Having a well-rested arm made a big difference for me, a knuckleball pitcher, as the season wore on. But it especially benefits power pitchers like Prior and Beckett, and their effectiveness increases as hitters get tired late in the season and bat speed slows.

I'm sure that Cubs manager Dusty Baker will be cautious with Prior at first and keep him on a careful pitch count. Once Prior shows he can handle it, I wouldn't be surprised to see him completing games with a strong arm come September.

ESPN baseball analyst Tom Candiotti was a major-league pitcher for 16 seasons.

In his last three regular-season starts, Prior threw 124, 131 and 133 pitches. Wood threw 114, 125 and 122 as the Cubs ran down the Houston Astros.

Including four starts in the playoffs, Wood threw 4,007 pitches last year -- 111 per start. Prior was the only major-leaguer who threw more every time out.

There's no way to know definitively whether the 2004 injuries to Prior and Wood related to their harsh workloads in 2003. But it seems more foolish to dismiss that possibility than to endorse it.

If Baker has gotten pitch-counting religion, as a mention of Swift hints that he may have, it will be because of the pain he's suffered while trying to meet expectations with his two top pitchers.

Before Wood walked off the mound after two innings on May 11 at Dodger Stadium, saying he felt a twinge, Baker had not changed the way he was using him. The powerful Texan had averaged 111 pitches in his first six starts, including 131 in an April 17 loss to Cincinnati.

Baker let Wood try to protect a 2-1 lead in the ninth inning that day even though he had already thrown 112 pitches. He stuck with him after Sean Casey had led off with a single and Adam Dunn had worked out of an 0-2 hole to draw a walk, running Wood's pitch count to 123, still with no outs.

Baker didn't come get Wood until after a Jason LaRue sacrifice fly and a Wily Mo Pena double had given the Reds the lead.

This was the kind of machismo baseball -- power against power -- that Baker and his stable of strong-armed pitchers won the NL Central playing in 2003. It's extremely popular with fans, who would rather see Prior or a Wood pitching in late-game situations than Joe Borowski, LaTroy Hawkins or Mike Remlinger. But is it worth the risk?

Little makes Baker more defensive -- and possibly downright angry -- than having columnists, talk-show hosts and other civilians question his handling of pitchers. But with him talking about handling Prior like he once did Swift, it could be a sign that he's realized it's time to take the testosterone down a notch.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com.