In June of 1998 the New York Yankees chose prep pitcher Mark William Prior in the supplemental portion of the first round - pick 43 overall. A lengthy right hander Prior decided to attend the University of South California rather than sign with the Yankees. A year later Prior was named to the Freshman portion of the All-American team - on the second team.
After two dominating seasons more as a Trojan Prior would go second overall in the 2001 draft to the Chicago Cubs and sign on August 23rd, 2001.
Nine starts into his pro career Prior would debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates and garner a victory. His numbers from the minors would translate over pretty well - including 11 strikeouts per nine to only 3 walks per nine.
In 2003 Prior would breach the 200 innings mark for the first time in his career, and have a simply outstanding season, showing the talent of what many considered the ultimate mechanically sound pitcher. He would also spend some time on the DL after colliding with Marcus Giles on a fluky baserunning play gone bad. Since being a kid former Trojan and Atlanta Braves pitcher Tom House had worked with Prior, teaching him the fundamentals and setting him up for the majors.
More injury issues awaited Prior in 2004, missing the season through June, he'd return and throw 118 innings of decent ball, although the Cubs wouldn't repeat their NLCS trip from 2003. At this time Prior is also prominently featured in Will Carroll's book Saving the Pitcher, a book about preventing arm injuries.
By now the common theme for Prior would become at least one stint to the disabled list, and 2005 would be no different first from elbow inflammation and then having a batted ball ricochet off of his throwing elbow in one of the most bizarre and horrifying incidents in recent memory. He'd still find a way to throw 166 innings and do so above average.
2006 saw the declining health trend continue as he'd only throw 43 major league innings and do horribly in that time - hitting the DL four times during the year and setting himself up for 2007 where he wouldn't make a single pitch. Prior was non-tendered a week ago, and is flirting with a number of teams, but with velocity questions - and apparently the San Diego Padres - Prior's hometown team - backing off after receiving his medical records, it dims the light of a once extremely bright career.
What makes it even more disappointing is Dusty Baker's involvement in the situation. In 2003 Prior was allowed to go over 115 pitches 15 times, and in a seven game span threw over 753 pitches, an average of 108 pitches per game - those seven games included five games of more than 120 pitches thrown including three in a row to end the season. It's hard to blame Baker for all of Prior's issues, but workloads like that cause the red flag to do more than just be raised, but rather cause emergency flares to be launched and smoke signals to be sent.
The idea that Prior would return to Baker in Cincinnati should be ridiculous - the equivalent of a child touching the same stove that burned him once. We all know how that will end: Dusty sitting in the dugout, Prior holding his arm with the trainer looking at him, and Baker murmuring something about how he should've listened the first time while twiddling his toothpick. Please Mark, don't make us go through this again.