Return looking like late May at earliest

The Cubs were hoping that injured ace Mark Prior would be able to throw off a mound as early as Monday. In March, when the right-hander went on the disabled list because of right Achilles tendinitis and elbow inflammation, his targeted return to the starting rotation was the first week of May.

It appears that's all wishful thinking.

Prior said Sunday he isn't ready to throw off a mound, and the right-hander is so uncertain of his return that he's stopped thinking about a possible timetable.

"I have been told to keep it open-ended, don't set myself up," Prior told the Chicago Sun-Times. "It's frustrating because I want to be out there, but I want to be out there healthy."

Based on his calculation that he usually takes six weeks of throwing time to prepare for the start of spring training -- the 23-year-old did not pitch in a spring game -- he might not be in a position to return until late May or sometime in June.

"My arm is not in shape yet, not enough to get on the mound," Prior told the Sun-Times. "I want to get on the mound, but I know long toss is better to get my arm in shape right now. It's more of a gut thing. I just know it's not strong enough. It's not as easy to throw long toss as it usually is."

Meanwhile, manager Dusty Baker on Tuesday shot down a New Jersey newspaper report that claimed Baker has told close friends that Prior's situation is "bleak". Citing confiding anonymous "baseball executives," the Newark Star-Ledger also reported that Prior might need Tommy John elbow surgery.

"I guess somebody is trying to start something," Baker was quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune. "People are saying I'm telling intimate friends that? I don't have any intimate friends like that I'd tell, No. 1, and No. 2, it's a lie. That's as big a lie as I've ever heard, and I wish whoever started this or wrote this would leave my name out of it."

Prior once again played catch Sunday on flat ground. He's also been using a towel to simulate his delivery off the mound. He doesn't expect to have to continue many more of these workouts before he can actually pitch off a mound.

"Hopefully, no more than two or three more times," he said. "It's just getting stretched out. I throw from the first week of January to the start of spring training [to get ready to pitch]. That's how long it usually takes. Hopefully, it doesn't take that long this time."

Prior was 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 245 strikeouts in his first full big league season last year, finishing third in voting for the NL Cy Young Award.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.