Health woes could leave Cubs in a bind

Because every twinge, every ache, reverberates throughout Cub Nation, there is a tendency for those at its heart to downplay their concerns. They know nobody wants to hear bad news.

"I know, people are going to panic," Kerry Wood said.

Wood had just walked off the mound after only two of his scheduled three or four innings on March 9. He admitted experiencing some "tightness" in his shoulder, which isn't the greatest of things when you're scheduled to start on Opening Day.

It's especially alarming now that Mark Prior has joined Wood on the sidelines in Mesa, Ariz. He is recovering from inflammation in his elbow, which caused him to miss a start on Monday and, as with Wood, brings his availability for the regular season into question.

Perhaps it's appropriate that the Cubs are Bill Murray's favorite team. Wood and Prior are experiencing their own form of "Groundhog Day" as they prepare for a season in which they are being counted on to carry a team of happy, Sammy Sosa-free campers into the playoffs.

At this point, Cubs officials are holding their collective breath. Both Wood and Prior have undergone MRIs without receiving dire diagnoses. Wood is long-tossing, Prior is resting and both are still hoping to make their 30-plus starts this season.

But the reality is that with Matt Clement in Boston, the Cubs have less of a safety net beneath their young guns than they did a year ago, when Wood and Prior combined for only 14 wins, 43 starts and 259 innings.

At the start of spring training, Glendon Rusch, Ryan Dempster and Sergio Mitre were competing to fill Clement's spot in the rotation. It's now possible all three could follow Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux in the season-opening rotation.

Manager Dusty Baker sprinkled some magic dust around Wrigley Field during the Cubs' trip to the NLCS in 2003. If he has any left over, he better break it out. If something is seriously wrong with Wood or Prior – or, to the delight of fans in St. Louis, Houston and the South Side of Chicago, Wood and Prior – it would create a royal mess, one that could leave Sosa with the last laugh during the 2005 season.

If the injuries to Wood and Prior don't prove to be just routine spring scares, if this dynamic duo is prevented from making at least 55 combined starts and winning 30-plus games, some really hard questions will have to be asked. The answers could shake the foundation of the Cubs' front office and field staff, with no job safe, least of all Baker's.

How about those pitch counts? Does it still seem anal to worry about how many times managers have let Wood and Prior stay on the mound when the traffic light was blinking yellow?

Is it just a coincidence that both Wood and Prior were ridden extremely hard at the starts of their careers, and have quickly become iffy propositions? Is it a coincidence that neither has been healthy since that magical season in 2003, when Baker won the NL Manager of the Year award on their backs?

One other thing: What about the Cubs' constant shuffling of trainers? How much better off would Prior and Wood be if they had been under the care of one experienced trainer the last three seasons, say someone like White Sox fixture Herm Schneider, instead of three different head trainers and two assistants?

This marks the fourth year that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has worked with Wood and Prior (the third for Baker and his bench coach, Dick Pole), and the results thus far are mixed. There's no doubting either's ability to dominate, although, in fairness to Wood's handlers, it's possible he just might be the most overrated player in the big leagues.

When Wood is on, he is overpowering. That was true in his fifth career start, when he struck out 20 Houston Astros, and it was true in the 2003 playoffs, when he twice shut down Atlanta to get the Cubs to the championship series.

But since 1998, Wood's rookie season, 97 different major leaguers have won 15 games in a season. Wood's best is 14.

Never mind that Greg Maddux has won 15 every year of Wood's career. The telling part is that Aaron Sele did it four times. And that Dave Burba did it three times. And that Rick Helling did it twice. And that Kent Bottenfield, Mike Sirotka, Gil Heredia, Garrett Stephenson, Robert Person, Jimmy Haynes, Rodrigo Lopez, Steve Trachsel and Jeriome Robertson did it once.

The Cubs continue to wait for Wood to become consistent enough to join this not-so-exclusive club.

This isn't really a big year for Wood, however. He signed a contract for $32.5 million for three years and an option before 2004. He'll earn his $9.5 million this year and $12 million next year, period. But his performance this season is vital for general manager Jim Hendry, who couldn't re-sign Clement because he signed Wood to a contract when he probably could have swapped him for one of the Texas Rangers' top young hitters, one being the powerful Mark Teixeira (.281-38-112 last season), after 2003.

Had Hendry been enough of a gambler to make such a bold deal, he wouldn't have added Derrek Lee, which might have given him the flexibility to land Carlos Beltran this winter. But Hendry sought to corner the market on power pitchers, a difficult move to argue with at the time. The question then is why haven't the Cubs protected their investments?

If Wood and Prior do not achieve the success that has been projected of them since their teenage years, the lion's share of the blame will fall on the shoulders of Baker and former Cubs manager Jim Riggleman, who pushed the two prodigies to their breaking points.

It's amazing that the Cubs did not learn anything from Riggleman's handling of Wood (and Jeremi Gonzalez) in 1998. Wood was just 20 when then-GM Ed Lynch brought him to the big leagues. Yet Riggleman was allowed to push him to 120 pitches nine times that season, including a crippling 135 on Aug. 26.

Wood made one more start and then didn't pitch again until the playoffs – another shortsighted decision. He hadn't turned 22 yet when he had Tommy John surgery.

None of this seemed to matter in 2003, when Baker arrived fresh from a trip to the World Series with San Francisco in '02. He had autonomy and anyone pointing out the workload he put on Prior (then 22) and Wood was accused of yellow journalism.

Given this is the second consecutive spring dominated by headlines about mysterious pitching injuries, the 2003 workloads of Prior and Wood bear renewed consideration.

Prior, who had been shut down the previous September as a supposed precaution, threw 120 or more pitches 10 times in his 33 starts, including five of his last six regular-season starts (when he was seemingly refreshed after time on the disabled list), and 133 pitches in his playoff start against Atlanta.

Wood went 120-plus in 14 of 35 starts, including five of six starts late in the year. The biggest brainlock was allowing him to throw 141 pitches over seven innings against St. Louis in May.

Including the playoffs, Wood threw 4,007 pitches in 2003, the most in the majors. Prior averaged 114.2 pitches per start, the most in the majors (Wood was second at 111.3). When Wood said he "choked'' in Game 7 against Florida, the reality was he had burned up by overuse.

The Cubs couldn't have been surprised. Baker's teams almost always have the most 120-pitch starts in the majors, and a thin bullpen made it tough to do the smart thing. But Jerry Prior, Mark's father, had a point in being upset with Baker's handling of his son.

The Cubs talk about preserving their resources, but they've done a little strip-mining, too.

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