It can be argued without too much effort that Prior could right now be, perhaps should right now be, winding down a career of pitching greatness. It could have been a Hall of Fame career. He had that kind of raw, natural talent.
But one thing that we have come to learn about athletes is that a long, successful career matching talent with results is not guaranteed. Many things have gotten in the way of many such athletes: personality problems, substance abuse, injuries.
For Prior it was the latter of those issues that came up to bite him hard, ending his big league career at just age 25, the same age that current Cubs young superstar Kris Bryant will turn in January.
He was said by some at the time to have near-perfect pitching mechanics. However, following his later troubles, others would claim to have seen the problems coming thanks to his “inverted W” arm action, something that would plague a similar talent named Stephen Strasburg a decade later.
However, the Minnesota Twins cut a pre-draft deal with the talented Joe Mauer, a hometown high school kid from St. Paul, and so Prior slipped fortuitously to the Cubs with the second overall pick.
Prior rifled through both AA and AAA in the Cubs minor league system in 2002, and on May 22 received his promotion to the big leagues, less than a year after being drafted.
Prior Becomes a Wrigley Star
In his first start in front of the Wrigley Field faithful, Prior was masterful. He shut down the Pittsburgh Pirates on four hits over six innings, striking out 10 batters, and what everyone thought was going to be that Hall of Fame career was off and running.
That first season, Prior remained in the Cubs rotation through August, when he was shut down after tossing 167.2 innings between the minors and MLB combined. The club finished 67-95, and there was no sense pushing his developing arm.
The following year, Prior seized a role in the starting rotation from the beginning as expected. He would go 18-6 in 2003 with a 2.43 ERA, 1.103 WHIP, and 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings over which he would allow just 183 hits. At just age 22, Prior was selected to the National League All-Star team, finished third in the Cy Young Award voting, and even came in ninth in voting for the NL Most Valuable Player Award.
He teamed that year with fellow young Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood to lead the team to an 88-win season and the NL Central Division crown.
It was believed by many that manager Dusty Baker abused his young starting pitchers in an attempt to reach and then advance in the postseason that year. Prior averaged 126 pitches per start in September, and 120 per start in the playoffs.
The Cubs would infamously be knocked out of the playoffs in the NLCS that year by the eventual World Series champion Florida Marlins. With Prior on the mound and the Cubs leading the series 3-2, the team blew a three-run eighth inning lead thanks partially to the Steve Bartman incident.
Physical Problems Derail Cubs Career
Prior would never pitch another full season, missing parts of each of the next three seasons with a variety of injuries. He was able to accomplish something, however. In 2004, Prior earned his business degree from the USC Marshall School of Business after continuing his studies on a part-time basis.
After a fairly successful 2005, Prior was able to make just nine starts in the 2006 season as he suffered from shoulder discomfort.
Exploratory shoulder surgery in early 2007 revealed structural damage, and Prior was done for the year and his career in jeopardy. The Cubs decided following the season to non-tender him, and his once glorious career on the north side of Chicago was over.
Fighting to Stay in the Game
In December of 2007, Prior signed a free agent contract with his hometown San Diego Padres. He would never pitch with the Friars, suffering a tear while rehabbing in late May of 2008.
Prior would not step on a big league or minor league mound again until 2010. After a highly successful stint in independent ball that year, the Texas Rangers signed him to their AAA club, but did not call him up.
The same story played out in each of the next three seasons. In 2011 he rolled through three levels of the New York Yankees system, pitching well and again reaching AAA, but he wasn’t promoted.
In 2012, Prior appeared on the verge of a big league return as a relief pitcher. That season he tossed 25 innings over 19 games with the Boston Red Sox AAA Pawtucket affiliate, allowing just 15 hits in 25 innings with a 38/23 K:BB ratio. But again the BoSox did not promote him.
A New Opportunity
Prior gave it one last shot in 2013 with the Cincinnati Reds, pitching 9.2 innings over seven games before he was released at the end of June.
“I certainly didn’t expect to be in this position when I retired three years ago, right around this time of the season,” said Prior in the SI piece.
“The opportunity to work for the Padres, to go back to my hometown of San Diego, came up almost immediately. I certainly would have preferred to still be on the mound, but there was no way I could turn the opportunity down.”
That opportunity was as a minor league pitching coordinator with the Padres, the position that he now holds.
Prior Doesn’t Look Back in Anger
As he looks back on his career, particularly to that stretch of heavy usage at the end of 2003 when Baker was pushing the Cubs toward the postseason, Prior is philosophical:
“I don’t blame Dusty for what happened to me. I wouldn’t change a single thing that happened during that season — beyond us failing to bring a World Series Championship to Chicago, of course. No matter how many pitches I threw, I never asked to come out of a game — doing so would have been unthinkable.”
There were two other major incidents that Prior believes strongly contributed to his early career ending. Those were a 2003 collision with Marcus Giles of the Atlanta Braves, and a fracture suffered in 2005 when his pitching elbow was smashed by a lined comebacker off the bat of Brad Hawpe of the Colorado Rockies.
What Comes Next?
Prior is now a pitching coordinator tasked with developing young arms such as his once was. It is now his job to determine how best to use and move forward that talent. No matter what he says publicly, I would bet that he uses caution with his young charges.
As for his psyche in looking back at what could have been, perhaps what should been? Well, he seems to have made peace with that as well, as he told Sports Illustrated:
“Would I love to still be pitching now, at 35? Without a doubt. But would I change where I’m at in life, the personal as well as the professional? Absolutely not.”
Mark Prior was a shooting star that burned out all too quickly. But anyone who saw it will never forget the sight. Now still at just 36 years of age, he remains involved, simply making his mark on the game in a different way.