Padres make case as front-runners for ex-Cubs ace Prior

The San Diego Padres appear to be the front-runner to sign pitcher Mark Prior, who figures to make a final choice among many offers very soon, perhaps within the next 24-48 hours.

The Padres have offered a modest base salary plus a performance bonus package to Prior, according to sources, but other teams continue to talk with Prior, and other more aggressive offers could take shape. The former Cub pitcher lives in San Diego County, and in the end, he may opt to play for the team located closest to his home, in what figures to be a transitional year in his career.

After being selected as the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft, Prior went 41-23 in the first four seasons of his career. But he has had injury problems since 2003, and after pitching in nine games in 2006, he didn't throw in any games last year.

The 27-year-old Prior had surgery last April, in which Dr. James Andrews repaired his shoulder. There was enough question about Prior's future that the Cubs decided to not tender him a contract for 2008, in spite of the remarkable early success he had in his career.

Andrews has estimated that Prior could return by mid-May at the earliest.

The Cubs had hoped to sign Prior to a one-year deal with an option for 2009, in case he rebounded, but Prior was resistant to giving the Cubs the option.

Right now, Prior is throwing pain-free on flat ground, and recently told an acquaintance that he is anxious to resume his major league career next season. If Prior were to rebound in 2008, San Diego could have a formidable rotation at some point, with Prior joining Jake Peavy, Chris Young, Greg Maddux and newly signed Randy Wolf.

Prior was born in San Diego, and attended Southern Cal.

Buster Olney is a senior baseball writer for ESPN The Magazine.