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Posted by Jon on Wednesday, March 24, 2004

An Injured Prior Could Doom the Cubs

The Red Sox have Trot and Nomar. The Yankees have Lieber, Bernie, and Travis Lee. Now the Cubbies can join the party.

Mark Prior, Chicago's North Side superstar, will start the season on DL. The inflammation in his right Achillies' tendon, which has prevented him from participating in any Spring Training games, will also prevent Prior from beginning his season. Eligable to return from the DL on April 10th, at best he'll miss one start. Chicago is hopeful that he'll be ready to pitch by mid-month, but when he does return, will he be in game-form, ready to help Chicago push for their first consecutive playoff appearances in almost a century?

With Prior's date with the DL now definite, the top three favourites to win the 2004 World Series all have some players with significant injury problems -- stars who will not start the season. For each team, the question marks will develop into exclaimations if the players do not soon return to form. Prior's injury, though, trumps both the Yankees and the Red Sox. A healthy Prior makes the Cubs a dominant force in any game in which he pitches, and he transforms the Cubs' rotation into the best five-man combo in baseball. In a division also featuring the four dandy hurlers down on the ranch in Houston, Prior's importance cannot be understated.

There are no delusions in the Windy City. Neither Kerry Wood, who was proclaimed Opening Day starter weeks ago, nor Greg Maddux, who was scheduled to follow Wood, were envisioned to outpitch Chicago's ace. Their third-slated starter, the young Prior, is their best chance at not only repeating their trip to the playoffs, but more importantly, he almost singlehandedly enhances Chicago's chances in October. Without a healthy Prior for an entire season, Chicago will not be sunk, but their task of reaching the playoffs doubles in difficulty.

Replacing the Choi/Karros firstbase combination with Derrek Lee should net the Cubs at least three wins (Lee outperformed Choi and Karros together by nine Win Shares). While the loss of Estes can only be viewed as a Cub gain, his replacement, Maddux, only accumulated eleven Win Shares in 2003. While anything is better then Estes' zero Win Shares (ranking 597 out of 611 major league pitchers in Earned Runs Saved Above Average will do that to you), Maddux cannot be counted upon for more than four additional Cubbie wins. And after Zambrano's breakthrough 2003 performance, it would be great to see a repeat performance. Unfortunately, as Baseball Prospectus 2004 reports, it may not be in the cards for Carlos, which could cost the Bear Cubs an additional three or four wins. As Sammy Sosa continues to decline and the rest of his lineup (and his manager) refuses to take a walk, the additional three wins the Cubbies have created (addition of Lee adds three; addition of Maddux adds four; Zambrano's expected decline removes four) could easily evaporate under the strain of an offense that led only three NL teams in OBP (the impotent Cincinatti, New York, and Los Angeles lineups). While a full season of Cory Patterson may help, he too is unlikely to reach and sustain his early 2003 successes. So as best as can be seen, the Cubs stand to win more games than last season -- about four more, which is nothing to scoff at.

The problem is that the above analysis makes no mention of Mark Prior. Going 18-6 with a 2.46 ERA while striking out more than ten batters and averaging little more than two walks per nine innings, Prior lifted and carried Chicago to an 88-win season, bringing them to the cusp of a World Series berth. A healthy Prior -- whose accumulated 22 Win Shares in a season that included a freak trip to the DL -- over the course of the entire 2004 season would seemingly easily push the Cubs into October again. But pitching that well and accumulating that many Win Shares could prove difficult. Unfortunately, the Cubs' ace is already scheduled to miss just about as much of the season as he did in 2003, leaving little room for error. And having avoided pitching in Spring Training due to his lingering Achillies' injury, a little rust should be expected. It is entirely possible that Prior will continue in mid-April where he left off in October, pitching lights-out baseball. But if the rust lingers, or he requires a second stint on the DL, the Cubs could be in trouble. The Astros are poised to perform better than they did last season, especially with the addition of significant upgrades in their starting rotation with Clemens and Pettitte. This should have North Siders frightened, because even with all of Chicago's 2003 successes, the Astros had the better run differential and, luck aside, could easily have taken the division crown. Having been lucky enough to win the NL Central by one game last season, and with an additional four wins coming their way if all things Prior remain similar in 2004 as they were in 2003, the Astros are still in position to overtake the Central Division. Not only does Prior's Achillies' hurt, but his could easily become the 2004 Cubs' Achillies' heel.

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