gets his final ST start tomorrow, facing the Colorado Rockies at HoHoKam Park. But with Wade Miller
's outstanding outing at Scottsdale Stadium last Saturday (5 IP, three hits, no runs, no walks, and four strikeouts), it appears that Miller has all but nailed-down the 5th spot in the Cubs starting rotation.
Even if Prior has a great outing tomorrow and Miller falters (implodes) in his last start (probably Thursday), Wade Miller is NOT a candidate for the bullpen. He has made that very clear himself. And although he does have one minor league option left, he also has five years-plus of MLB service time, so he can't be optioned to the minors without his permission. And I doubt VERY much that he would agree to go to AAA, even if the Cubs offered to guarantee some of his $3.75M in 2007 performances bonuses to entice him to do so.
In fact, Jim Hendry probably promised Miller when he signed him last November that if he doesn't begin the regular season in the Cubs starting rotation, he will either be traded to a club where he will have a chance to start, or he will be given his release so that he can make his own deal.
But I would think Hendry probably wants to retain as many MLB-caliber starting pitchers in the organization as possible going into the regular season, so he would probably prefer to retain both Miller and Prior. At least for a while.
The problem is, Prior says he feels fine, which makes it kind of tough to place him on the DL. Of course he could suddenly claim his shoulder hurts, or I guess the Cubs could put him on the DL with some "right shoulder weakness" mumbo-jumbo and send him to Extended Spring Training at Fitch Park for a month or two and then on a 30-day minor league injury rehab assignment in May or June, but so far there is no indication they plan to do that. And what happens if, after Prior completes his minor league rehab, he feels "OK," but he's just not getting good results? Or if there isn't a spot for him in the rotation, is Prior a candidate for the bullpen? As of now, Piniella says he is not.
Prior has 4+131 days of MLB ST right now, which means he is 41 days short of the five years of MLB ST he would need to refuse an optional assignment to the minors. He has two minor league options left. He would have to clear Major League Waivers to be optioned, but this time of year, getting a player through Major League Waivers is usually just a formality, because Major League Waivers are revocable, and a club can pull a player back if he gets claimed.
And I doubt that any MLB GM would put in a "nuisance claim" (forcing the Cubs to either keep Prior on their Opening Day 25-man roster or place him on the DL), because next time, that GM might want to send one of his guys to the minors. (It's also possible that the Cubs put Prior through Major League Waivers at the very beginning of the current waiver period--which started on February 16th, in which case the waivers remain good through April 30th, when the current waiver period ends and the waivers expire). So the Cubs could (without having to get Prior's OK) very likely option Prior to the minors right now.
As long as Prior accrues at least 41 days of MLB service time in 2007, he's still in good shape as far as entering the 2008 season with five years of MLB service time (so the Cubs would not be able to option him to the minors without his permission out of ST next year) and so he could stay on target to be a FA after 2008. Which means Prior could spend most of the 2007 season at Iowa, and as long as he is recalled to the big leagues prior to August 22nd, it won't cost him a chance to be a FA after 2008, and in either case, he will be eligible for salary arbitration (again) after the 2007 season.
Prior won't like it (although he gets his $3.575M whether he's pitching in Chicago, Des Moines, or Boise), and I'm sure the Cubs wouldn't be exactly thrilled having to pay a pitcher $3.5M+ to pitch in AAA, but the Cubs probably will consider optioning Prior to AAA to start the season and leaving him there for as long as it takes for him to get the velocity back on his fastball and the bite back on his curve. And if he does get the mojo back at Iowa sometime during the '07 season, then the Cubs can decide where he fits at that time (even if it means working him out of the bullpen). And if he doesn't get it back, the Cubs can either try and trade him after the season, or (more likely) just non-tender him in December.