A cautionary tale for Robert Whitenack

Best Cubs pitching prospect should avoid youthful 120-pitch counts of Wood and Prior

While the Cubs paid tribute to Kerry Wood in a private ceremony Saturday at Wrigley Field, Robert Whitenack was about 1,700 miles away, throwing on the side in the smothering Arizona heat.

He had his own little strikeout moment a week ago, fanning seven consecutive A's players, including Manny Ramirez, in an extended spring training game. The crowd at Fitch Park Field No. 3 was 22, according to the website thecubreporter.com, but you shouldn't confuse a lack of attention for a lack of significance.

Whitenack, who is on his way back from elbow surgery last June, is arguably the best pitching prospect in the Cubs organization. He already might have grabbed a spot in Dale Sveum's starting rotation if he hadn't torn a ligament last May, as he had been promoted to Double-A Tennessee and was dominating.

"I was sitting right where I am now, listening to the game,'' Robert Whitenack Sr. said over the telephone Saturday from North Massapequa, N.Y. "He was 7-0, about to go 8-0, when he threw that pitch last May 27. He called for a trainer, they took him out and the next thing I know I'm flying to Chicago. … After I landed, I found out my father had passed (away). It was the worst week in my life.''

Based on how well Whitenack is handling his recovery from surgery, there may be much happier times ahead for the family. In an organization that is devoid of high-level pitching prospects, Whitenack will be hard to miss this summer and next spring. He easily could audition at Wrigley Field in 2013, if not this September.

And while Whitenack is not quite Wood — at 23 he already is three years older than Wood was when he had his 20-strikeout game in 1998 — the Cubs will have another Wood, another Mark Prior, sometime. When that day arrives, I hope Wood will serve as a reminder to everyone that each and every game isn't Game 7 of the World Series.

Young pitchers need time to grow into their roles. Wood and Prior weren't given that time, and their legacies are as much about what they could have been as about what they are.

White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper calls me "the pitch-count guy'' because I track big leaguers who throw 120-plus pitches in a game. I've done that a long time, including in the Wood/Prior era, and I pointed out from time to time how hard Jim Riggleman rode Wood in '98 (11 120-pitch starts) and Dusty Baker rode Wood and Prior (a combined 21 120-pitch starts) in 2003.

But I didn't write what I should have: that it was a crazily stupid trend that should stop immediately, at the risk of a manager losing a job. I didn't write that because it seemed like nitpicking given the excitement the Cubs were creating.

Wood and Prior were good baseball and even better business, and fans wanted to see them pitch deep into games just as badly as their managers did. It would have helped if the Cubs had decent bullpens those years, but they didn't, so Riggleman and Baker crossed their fingers and sent Wood and Prior into the danger zone.

As Riggleman pointed out, the only times fans booed was when he took Wood out of games. But here's hoping Chicago fans are smarter the next time there's a pitching wunderkind in town.

Stephen Strasburg made only 12 starts for the Nationals before he had his surgery, never throwing more than 99 pitches. His injury came even though he was treated with kid gloves, in a way that makes the handling of Wood and Prior seem practically prehistoric.

Wood doesn't second-guess anything about his career, at least not yet. He said Friday that he had "a blast'' playing and that frequent injuries were life lessons. On Saturday, he thanked Phoenix-based trainer Brett Fischer for helping him recover from a potentially career-ending shoulder injury "with the help of a small miracle.''

Like Wood's dad a long time ago, Whitenack Sr. is excited about the potential of his sons, including the youngest, Frankie. He's a 10-year-old Little Leaguer on a roll of 10 shutout innings, but he has done that over three games, a conservative pace that wasn't enforced when Robert Jr. was a Little Leaguer.

Coaches paid attention to Robert Jr.'s pitch counts in high school and then at Division III SUNY-Old Westbury. But it was hard to take a good pitcher out of a close game, just like it was at Wrigley in 1998 and 2003.

Robert Sr., who considers himself an old-school type who taught his sons to be tough, wasn't going to complain.

"Robert has always had wonderful coaches,'' Whitenack said. "They tracked it. But I know they went over 100 (pitches) at times. You kidding?''

Whitenack doesn't know what caused his son's elbow to pop last May. But just in case it was throwing too much, he's not going to let Frankie throw as much as Rob did when he was a kid.

"I'm just approaching it like we're going to be more careful than we were with Rob,'' Whitenack said. "Why'd he get hurt? I think about it all the time. Did I do it? Did the pitching coach do it? Did the Cubs do it? Who knows? But I'm taking a different approach with Frankie.''

Hopefully we'll all be smarter next time around.

progers@tribune.com

Twitter @ ChiTribRogers
 

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