Looking back (and ahead) with Mark Prior

Could Prior's picture still be up there? - Jonathan Daniel

Mark Prior's career was derailed by injuries, but not before he ripped off a rather impressive string of starts. What could have been, and what could still be for the former Cubs' star?

Yesterday, the Baseball Prospectus staff took a brief look at ten players that they wish could have stayed healthy. In response, I wanted to delve a little deeper into the career and the future of one of my favorite all-time pitchers, Mark Prior. First, here's what Zachary Levine had to say about him from the article:

He was still just 22 and had only played a partial season in the major leagues, yet Chicago's manager let him go well over 200 innings. Borderline criminal, right?

Except Mark Buehrle would be fine, it turns out. He would be as fine as a pitcher possibly could be. After that 2001 season with 221 1/3 innings pitched, he'd go over 230 innings the next four years and has still never set foot on the disabled list.

Unfortunately, that's not how it worked out for the other guy to whom the first sentence applies. Mark Prior, he of the supposedly perfect mechanics and such, was the best pitcher in baseball at age 22, helping the Cubs into the postseason and following his 2.43 ERA with a 2.31 in October. Now he hasn't pitched in the majors in seven years and is spending 2013 in the bullpen of the Louisville Bats (the Reds' Triple-A affiliate). He generally goes into this conversation as part of a two-horse entry with Kerry Wood, yet Wood got this moment in 2012. Here's hoping for the same for Prior someday.

It is making me feel really old to realize that the season Levine is referring to was 10 years ago this year. And since it was a decade ago, it's easy to forget just how good Mark Prior was. He was Stephen Strasburg before Stephen Strasburg, a phenom before social media and 24/7 coverage of everything took over the world. Strasburg was billed as possibly the best draft prospect ever, but still to this day many say Prior was the best collegiate pitcher ever. In fact, Prior's junior year numbers look very similar to Strasburg's:

Player

IP

H

HR

BB

K

ERA

Prior

138.0

100

5

18

202

1.70

Strasburg

109.0

65

4

19

195

1.32

His outstanding junior season placed him almost universally atop 2001 draft boards and Baseball America's draft report couldn't have gushed more about the 6'5 righty:

All the superlatives come out when Prior's name is mentioned in coaching and scouting circles, including "best college pitcher ever," and "could be a No. 3 starter on a lot of big league clubs right now."

He dominated hitters with a 94-97 mph fastball with exquisite location on both sides of the plate, and outstanding command of his quality breaking ball. And it all happens with a free, easy, effortless delivery.

Those who know him say he wouldn't be intimidated by going directly to the big leagues--a feat that has happened only 18 times in draft history.

He had it all, the frame, the stuff, the plus-plus makeup, and even the dreamy Southern California looks. As many of you will recall, though, Prior was not taken first overall. The Minnesota Twins shied away from his huge price tag, opting instead take a cheaper high school catcher named Joe Mauer. While we could talk for days about how great that decision was for the Twins, let's focus instead on Prior.

After a lengthy negotiation, the Cubs signed Prior to a record $10.5 million contract, a record number that stood until, you guessed it, Stephen Strasburg signed a $15.1 million deal in 2009. Because he signed late, Prior didn't make his professional debut until the following season, beginning 2002 in Double-A. But even at just 21-years-old, the Minor Leagues proved to be no challenge. He breezed through the upper Minors, making just 9 starts combined between Double and Triple-A before he made his Major League debut.

Mark Prior's strikeout rate might have been close to 35% had he pitched in 2012.

Over the next season and a half, Prior was quite possibly the best pitcher in baseball, the kind that filled up stadiums night in and night out. Between 2002 and 2003, he ranked 2nd in ERA (2.74) and 3rd in FIP (2.79), finishing only behind Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling. Over the same time, he also was 9th in pitcher fWAR (10.2), despite throwing 46 fewer innings than any of the 8 pitchers ahead of him. Prior was nothing less than dominant over the two seasons, striking out 29.1% of the batters he faced while walking just 6.4%. To put his strikeout numbers in perspective - Prior's rate over his first 328 big league innings would have been the best mark in the Major's last season, besting Yu Darvish's 27.1%. But then we need to take into account that batters are striking out much more frequently now than they were in the early 2000's. Back then, the league struck out just 16.8% of the time, compared to 19.8% of the time last season. Obviously it doesn't work exactly this way, but 22-year-old Mark Prior's strikeout rate might have been close to 35%, had he been a big leaguer last season.

Sadly, we all know what happened next, with injuries derailing his career and keeping him from possible Cy-Young seasons and enshrinement into Cooperstown. What you may not know, however, is that Prior is still fighting to pitch in the Major Leagues, something he has not done since 2006. After the 2006 season, he missed the next four years, before resurfacing as a reliever in the now extinct Independent Golden League with the Orange County Flyers. His performance there earned him a minor league deal with the Texas Rangers, and he has spent each of the last three seasons in Triple-A with different organizations. Last year, he started off the season hot with Pawtucket, allowing just four hits and striking out 19 batters over his first 8 innings, prompting some speculation of a promotion. Alas, it did not happen and this year he's on to yet another organization, pitching for Cincinnati's Triple-A affiliate in Louisville. As a 32-year-old, his prospects of rekindling his former success are nearly zero, and even the chances that he carves out another 3-5 years of big league time are minimal. Regardless, I will continue watching and rooting for him to carve out a niche as a big league reliever, and I will always look back and wonder what could have been, had he just stayed healthy.

My apologies if I brought up any painful memories for Chicago fans. For more on the Cubs, be sure to check out SB Nation's Bleed Cubbie Blue.

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, Fake Teams, and Fantasy Ninjas.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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