Prior has just 17 wins in last two years

MESA, Ariz. -- On the first day of spring training, the day that every team -- even one that hasn't won a World Series in 98 years -- is supposed to feel good about the road ahead, the questions started for Mark Prior and the Cubs.

The 25 pitchers in camp lined up along the right-field line of a back diamond at the Fitch Park complex to play catch. As they warmed up, they backed away from one another, working their way from 90 feet or so to more than 150. Only one pitcher held his ground, not scooting back. That was Prior.

While Prior and the Cubs insisted there was nothing wrong, saying he had lost some strength from a winter illness and that the plan was to go slower early in the spring so he would be in top shape for Opening Day, he missed two weeks of exhibitions before telling the team on March 14 that his shoulder hurt.

A trip to the Southern California office of Dr. Lewis Yocum left him with a diagnosis of a strained muscle in his shoulder. The technical description was "a moderate strain of the subscapularis," one of the lower muscles of the rotator cuff group.

At this point, the Cubs are counting that as good news. They had feared it could be a lot worse, possibly even a torn rotator cuff or labrum, requiring surgery that would end his season and could threaten his career.

As it is, Prior will rest his arm until Saturday, when his condition is reevaluated. And the team that had been counting on him to join workhorses Carlos Zambrano and Greg Maddux at the front of the rotation while Kerry Wood and Wade Miller recover from their surgeries will try to make do without him.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed," general manager Jim Hendry said. "We thought all along that we were going to have him on the second day [of the season] in Cincinnati. He had not said one word about discomfort up until [March 14]. Hopefully it won't be a long setback."

In any case, it counts as a big setback.

The Cubs were hoping this would be the year the 25-year-old Prior would return to his form of 2003, when he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 30 starts, joining Wood and Zambrano in carrying an otherwise patchwork roster to the National League Championship Series. Instead it will be the third year in a row that they scratch their heads and wonder why they can't keep their franchise player healthy.

The last two seasons, Prior has made 48 starts, winning only 17 games. His simulated games and rehab outings have been watched breathlessly by Cubs Nation, desperate to see him back on form. It's been considered news even when he's used a towel to simulate the snap of delivering a pitch.

Elbow problems put him on the disabled list at the start of the last two seasons, and just when he seemed to be back up to speed he was smacked in the elbow by a line drive from Colorado's Brad Hawpe last May.

No one is more baffled by the series of events than Prior. After all, when he left USC and joined the Cubs, longtime scouts said it wasn't a question of whether he could win a Cy Young Award but how many he would win. Everyone raved about his poise and textbook mechanics.

This will be his fifth trip to the disabled list in four years, a stretch that began when he bruised his shoulder in a baseline collision with Marcus Giles in 2003. How has he suddenly become so injury-prone?

"Accident-prone more than anything," Prior told reporters when he returned from seeing Yocum. "It's kind of a weird stretch. I've gone from the high of 2003 to the last couple of years where things are not going well. All I can say is I have to get back up and keep going. I'm looking forward to having a long career.

"I'm 25 and a half [years old]. Guys are playing into their 40s, and if I'm fortunate to have the ability to play that long, I want to play. This is not doom or gloom by any means for me."

Prior said the strain started with a problem below his armpit that spread into his shoulder.

"From everything [the doctors] tell me, it's something unusual," he said. "I seem to find myself in the 10 percent of things that happen."

Cubs manager Dusty Baker has been in the top 10 percent of managers who will ride hot starting pitchers the longest.

Prior, who had been shut down the previous September after straining his left hamstring, threw 120 or more pitches 10 times in his 33 starts in 2003, including five of his last six regular-season starts. Wood led the majors with 4,007 total pitches that season, and Prior averaged 114.2 per start, the most in the majors. Neither has held together for very long since then.

Baker has never been a believer in strict pitch counts, saying he gets to know a pitcher and gives him what his body can stand. He has put just as heavy a load on Zambrano as on Prior and Wood, and so far Zambrano just keeps raising his profile.

Some injuries are inevitable with pitching. That's the way it always has been, and the way it always will be. But there are two kinds of pitching injuries -- the ones that just happened, and ones you dared to happen.

It would appear that the Cubs once treated Prior like he was invincible, and they have learned the hard way he is not.

During their failed pursuit of shortstop Miguel Tejada, the Cubs reportedly were willing to deal Prior. Hendry says he never shopped him, but sources indicate that when Baltimore asked about Prior, Hendry indicated he would consider it if the Orioles sent some pitching back (Erik Bedard or possibly Daniel Cabrera).

Prior didn't seem upset to read reports about a possible trade, at least not when the guy going the other way was the powerful Tejada, a former American League MVP. He says he understands his sport is also a business. Perhaps that's because he completed a business degree at USC in 2004, three years after the Cubs selected him in the draft.

Prior likes to finish what he starts. He believes the latest injury will prove to be only another blip on a radar screen that has had far too many of them.

Asked about being out until early May, he said he hoped it wouldn't be that long. "Honestly, I don't know," Prior said. "I'm optimistic I'll be back to help the team in a short time."

Unfortunately, he knows this drill all too well.

Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune, which has a Web site at www.chicagosports.com. His book, "Say It's So," a story about the 2005 White Sox, is available at bookstores, through amazon.com or direct order from Triumph Publishing (800-222-4657).