Cubs' fate rests with Wood and Prior

CHICAGO – They haven't played a game at Wrigley Field yet, but it's already clear the Cubs have a serious problem – although it might not be anything that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior can't cure.

Without strong seasons from Wood and Prior, the two headliners who were healthy to work only a combined 12 innings in spring training, the Cubs are not going to have enough starting pitching to seriously challenge St. Louis or anyone else in the National League Central.

Heading into Friday's home opener against Milwaukee, which will be Wood's belated turn to take the mound, a few things are quite clear – the first of those is that this pitching staff is not as deep as the one that finished in third place in the division in 2004.

It badly misses Matt Clement, who averaged 196 innings over the last three seasons before departing as a free agent, with the Cubs receiving only a third-round draft pick from Boston as compensation. His presence allowed future Hall of Famer Greg Maddux to enter '04 as the fifth starter.

This year's No. 5 is Ryan Dempster, who got spanked by Arizona on Wednesday night. He got the job somewhat by default, as lefty Glendon Rusch (4-2, 3.50 in 16 starts last year) wound up in the bullpen after a bad spring.

The Cubs lost two of three games in the season-opening series to the Diamondbacks, with the starting pitchers (Carlos Zambrano, Maddux and Dempster) allowing 15 runs on 22 hits and eight walks in 13 1/3 innings.

It has also become evident that Zambrano, who would be counted on to be a potential ace if Wood and Prior falter, remains too mercurial to be a leading man. He got the start on Opening Day, in place of Wood, and suffered a meltdown because he didn't like umpire Dale Scott's strike zone.

The Cubs gave Zambrano a 7-0 lead in the second inning, but he couldn't make it through the fifth inning to get a victory. After manager Dusty Baker pulled him in the fifth inning (he had great stuff, striking out eight, but still walked four and gave up seven hits) he looked in Scott's direction and cupped his hands around his eyes, letting everyone know he felt the umpire needed glasses.

It was a classless act and earned him an ejection. So much for the Cubs' trying to get along better with umpires than they did during a turbulent 2004, when they drew 13 ejections and groused so much that Maddux confessed to umpires he was embarrassed.

At least Zambrano was honest afterward. "I just told him he needed glasses, and he tossed me out,'' said Zambrano, who was suspended last season for twice drilling St. Louis' Jim Edmonds. "I didn't do anything else.''

No, Carlos, that was quite enough.

Along with Zambrano's continued lack of maturity and the void left by Clement's departure, it's also time to wonder, where are all the great arms in the Cubs' farm system?

Since Zambrano arrived to stay in 2002, the only keepers the Cubs have found for their pitching staff have been Jon Leicester, Michael Wuertz and Todd Wellemeyer, all of them relievers in a thin bullpen. While Baseball America has raved about the potential of the organization's pitching prospects, the only youngster even briefly considered for the Clement vacancy was 24-year-old Sergio Mitre, who compiled a 6.62 ERA in 51 innings last season.

Juan Cruz, who once was ranked right alongside Prior, was a disappointment and is now with Oakland, his third team. Angel Guzman, who might have been the best pitcher in the Arizona Fall League in 2003, is still getting himself back to form after suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder. Reynel Pinto, who dominated in Double-A last year (179 strikeouts in 142 innings) was late to spring training because he lost his visa.

Cuban Raul Valdez broke his left thumb on a comebacker just before spring training. Bobby Brownlie hasn't regained the velocity he had before being injured as a junior at Rutgers. And the other most highly regarded arms in the farm system, guys like Billy Petrick and Sean Marshall, are too far away to offer immediate help.

Add all that up, and it comes out with the Cubs' being even more dependent on Wood and Prior than they were coming into 2004. Those two suffered a variety of ailments last season, combining for only 14 wins, 43 starts and 259 innings. Their injuries were the biggest reason the Cubs won only 89 games, finishing three games behind Houston for the National League's wild-card spot.

According to closer LaTroy Hawkins, their spring-training injuries (Wood, shoulder and back), (Prior, elbow) gave a "Groundhog Day'' feeling to March in Mesa, Ariz. Cubs general manager Jim Hendry insists there's no reason not to count on both making 30-plus starts.

We'll know more in a few weeks.

Prior, who has been penciled in for an April 12 start against San Diego, gave his elbow its first test under real game conditions Thursday night, and was ineffective while pitching for Triple-A Iowa in its season-opening game against Albuquerque. Prior allowed seven runs, the first five coming in the opening inning, and nine hits in six innings. Wood will start Friday's home opener at Wrigley Field against Milwaukee.

Baker, who rode Wood and Prior so hard during the 2003 run to the National League Championship Series, and Hendry now hold their breath.

Wood, more than Prior, has more to prove than just that he can be healthy. Ninety-seven major league pitchers have had 15-win seasons since he came to the big leagues in 1998, and he has never won more than 14.

This didn't stop the Cubs from giving Wood a three-year, $32.5-million contract before last season, but with the money comes expectations. If he and Prior again fall short, either through injury or inconsistent performance, they'll almost certainly take their team and its fanatical fans with them.

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