North without Prior

Later this week when the Cubs head north from Spring Training in Arizona to Cincinnati for the official start of the 2007 season, Mark Prior won't be accompanying them.

In context, nothing about Prior's absence from the Cubs' Opening Day roster should come as a surprise. Only once since his All-Star 2003 season has the oft-injured (in this case, seemingly more often than not) right-hander and one-time savior made a big league start in the month of April.

The only difference between this season and Prior's past Opening Day no-show's are the circumstances surrounding them.

Unlike past springs, there appear to be no simulated starts in Extended Spring Training leading up to a handful of minor league rehab starts. But Prior will all the same be on a minor league mound when he begins his 2007 season with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs the first week of April.

For the 26-year-old, it is only the second time in his career that he's been optioned to the minor leagues fresh out of Spring Training. The last time was in 2002, less than a year after he was drafted second overall by the Cubs.

That year, Prior entered the season as the top prospect in the Cubs organization and likely in all of baseball. Five years later, he will be back in the minors with the same goal: getting to the majors.

Prior was one of three players optioned to minor league camp Wednesday as the Cubs trimmed their spring roster to 28 players. Pitcher Rocky Cherry and outfielder Angel Pagan were also optioned to Iowa.

"This is good for his career," Cubs manager Lou Piniella reasoned to reporters Wednesday.

Initially, the battle for the fifth spot in the Cubs' rotation had come down to Prior and right-hander Wade Miller, who at one point was said to be trailing Prior on the recovery trail. Miller was officially awarded the spot on Tuesday, leaving Prior as the odd man out for the time being.

In five starts this spring, Miller is 2-0 with a 3.63 ERA. He has fanned 16 in 17 1/3 innings. Prior appeared in just three games with the big league team this spring, having also pitched in a minor league intraquad game at Fitch Park. He allowed eight runs in 10 1/3 innings for a 6.97 ERA.

The Cubs aren't sure about the specifics behind what will happen if and when Prior is ready to join the Chicago staff from Iowa, but general manager Jim Hendry made one guarantee Wednesday:

"We'll make a spot for him when he's ready," Hendry told reporters.

Prior worked three innings Wednesday against Colorado in his final start of the spring, yielding three runs (all unearned) on two hits. He struck out three and walked two in an outing that had no effect one way or the other on where he'll begin the year. The game finished in a 4-4 tie after 10 innings.

The Cubs season opener is Monday, April 2, when the club travels to Cincinnati to face the Reds at Great American Ballpark beginning at 1:10 p.m. (CDT). Television coverage of the game will be provided by WGN as well as ESPN2. It's the third time in the past four years that the Cubs will open the year in Cincinnati and the fourth time in the past six years overall.

It's also the fourth consecutive year that Prior, scheduled to make $3.575 million this season, will not be on the Cubs Opening Day roster.

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