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Wednesday, March 30, 2005; Page H14

Anybody picking the Cubs to win the NL Central does so with one caveat: It only happens if Mark Prior and Kerry Wood are healthy. Otherwise, the Cubs are basically the Milwaukee Brewers with a cooler stadium and actual fans.

Case in point: In 2003, Prior and Wood combined to make 62 starts, and the Cubs came within five outs of making it to the World Series. In 2004, they combined to make only 43 starts, and the Cubs collapsed down the stretch.

The Chicago Cubs will only go as far as starting pitchers Kerry Wood, left, and Mark Prior take them. Both players missed parts of spring training because of arm injuries. (Jeff Christensen -- Reuters)

So far, it doesn't look so good for the Cubs' dynamic duo -- both missed stretches of the spring with arm injuries (Wood's was a shoulder, Prior's an elbow), and were using the final couple of weeks of camp to see if they would be ready by Opening Day. Carlos Zambrano, the third choice if Wood and Prior are out, is a formidable pitcher, but he looks a lot more intimidating as the number three starter than the number one.

And as if the injuries to Wood and Prior were not enough, the Cubs lost closer Joe Borowski for the first month of the season when he was struck by a comebacker and suffered a broken bone in his right arm. That leaves -- uh-oh -- LaTroy Hawkins to fill in as closer, a role he struggled in last season when he converted only 25 of 34 save opportunities.

This was supposed to be the season the Cubs put forth a new organizational face, now that superstar right fielder and noted clubhouse deejay Sammy Sosa has been jettisoned.

Clearly, in essentially giving Sosa away to the Baltimore Orioles, the Cubs' front office thought the team was better off without his clubhouse antics and bigger-than-the-team persona. However, between Sosa and free agent Moises Alou, the team lost nearly a third of its home run production -- production that likely was not gained back with the additions Jerry Hairston and Jeromy Burnitz to man the corner outfield positions.

Still, in a weakened NL Central, the Cubs clearly are the team to beat -- as long as the two horses atop their rotation remain in the saddle.

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