Sports Outside the Beltway

Mark Prior: Cubs Tease

From the Cubs Official Website

The Cubs began their winter Cubs Caravan tour on Wednesday with good news regarding Mark Prior, who is throwing off the mound and making good progress.

“Mark is up on the hill, throwing some bullpens and doing well,” Cubs general manager Jim Hendry said Wednesday before boarding a bus with other players and staff for a trip to downstate Illinois.

“The reports have been encouraging, and we’re all keeping our fingers crossed,” Hendry said. “We’d love to show up and have the old Mark back and feel like we have a great, new player come in that we weren’t expecting. We wanted to cover ourselves in depth if Mark was behind, but if he’s on schedule, we’ll feel like we got a bonus.”

To quote longtime Cubs fan and commentator George Will, “Well.” The hope resting on Mark Prior’s right shoulder is the hope of the north side of Chicago. Here’s why:

Carlos Zambrano followed Cubs general manager Jim Hendry’s spending spree closely from his Venezuelan home this off-season, knowing his turn to cash in was just around the corner.

Though the Cubs have yet to begin negotiations on a long-term deal for the impending free agent, they got a good idea of what they’re in for on Tuesday when Zambrano filed for a club-record $15.5 million in arbitration. The Cubs countered with an offer of $11.025 million, meaning Zambrano probably will do no worse than a $13 million salary for ’07 if the two sides settle before his hearing.

Ultimately, Zambrano is expected to seek a six-year deal for somewhere around $100 million-$110 million when contract talks begin next month.

“Carlos always has stated he wants to stay here,” Hendry said. “In the near future we’ll be working to get a multiyear contract done.”

Zambrano’s filing figure was the highest of any arbitration-eligible player this winter.

The spending isn’t done in Chicago. It might just be starting up. If the Cubs and Zambrano can’t work out a deal, Zambrano will be a very attractive free agent in next year’s market. And the Cubs are back to relying on Mark Prior and his limitless potential and questionable health.

Prior will be just 26 next year. It’s a pivotal year for him and the Cubs.

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