With Prior, Cubs in good hands

Finally. Everybody's favorite Cy Young candidate three months ago is finally going to pitch in a game that matters. I don't know about you, but baseball just wasn't as interesting without Mark Prior.

He's great for us, of course. But how great is he for the Cubs?

Barring a lengthy stint on the disabled list, Prior should start roughly 20 games for the Cubs this season. In 2003, he started 30 games and was roughly five games better than the average National League starting pitcher. We'll give him another game because average National League starters aren't just hanging around on the corner waiting to be signed, and that makes Prior worth six "extra" wins over 30 starts.

Ergo, over 20 starts he'll be worth four wins, which might not seem like much but really is. According to The Baseball Encyclopedia, in 2003 only three National League pitchers were more than four wins better than average: Prior (4.9), Eric Gagne (4.9) and Kevin Brown (4.1). Think about it like this ... if you take a .500 team and add four players as valuable as Mark Prior, you might win 100 games.

So yeah, four or five wins is actually quite a lot. But will Prior's wins ... and remember, we're assuming that 1) he's healthy, and 2) he pitches like the Cy Young candidate he was in 2003 ... will Prior's wins have the Cubs in first place on the last day of the season?

They've got some work to do, that's for sure. It's one thing to be in fourth place, and it's another to be 4½ games behind the team in first place. But when you're in fourth and you're four-and-a-half out, you have to be worried.

Am I bearish on the Cubs? No, but I'm not bullish, either. Call me cubbish.

On the plus side:

  • While both Carlos Zambrano (5-2, 2.41) and Matt Clement (6-4, 3.27) are pitching better than we might reasonably have expected, both are good pitchers capable of finishing the season with excellent numbers.

  • Sergio Mitre is now plying his trade in Des Moines' Sec Taylor Stadium rather than Chicago's Wrigley Field. Mitre opened the season as the Cubs' No. 5 starter because of Prior's injury, and after nine starts he's 2-4 with a 6.51 ERA (that he earned on merit).

  • Greg Maddux's strikeouts are up. He's got a 4.41 ERA, mostly because he's given up 15 home runs -- more than Zambrano, Clement, and Kerry Wood put together -- but that's not going to continue, and when the balls stop leaving the park so often, the Cubs will have the best No. 5 starter we've seen in a long time.

  • Derrek Lee's better than this, isn't he?

    On the minus side:

  • This probably is the real Corey Patterson we're seeing: decent power and speed but a debilitating lack of plate discipline essentially that makes him an exciting out-maker in the lineup.

  • Apparently a 7.40 ERA and nearly two baserunners per inning isn't enough to convince the Cubs that maybe this just isn't Joe Borowski's year. I know Borowski's better than he's pitched, and I know saves are overrated. So I guess if LaTroy Hawkins continues to pitch a lot of important innings, it really doesn't matter much whether those are eighth innings or ninth innings.

  • Any moment now, Todd Hollandsworth and Michael Barrett are going to remember that they're Todd Hollandsworth and Michael Barrett and stop hitting home runs every time somebody in the ballpark sneezes.

    A lot of these things might wind up canceling each other out, so let's get to the important stuff (and yes, I know I took my own sweet time, but I do get paid by the word, so that's your cross to bear) ... If the Cubs have Mark Prior and Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa in the second half of the season, they're going to win the NL Central. If they don't, they're going to finish second or third, and Houston's Killer B's will get another shot at proving they're not chokers.

    Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.