Editor’s Note: Since this story was filed for the magazine, Prior’s contract has been purchased by the Texas Rangers, which sent him to Triple-A Oklahoma.
FULLERTON, CALIF.—For righthander Mark Prior, playing in an independent league means more than a last chance for glory or camaraderie. It represents a foundation for re-inventing himself.
Prior, who once teamed with Kerry Wood to lead the Cubs rotation, now serves as a reliever with the Golden League’s Orange County Flyers.
“I’m a long way from where I need to be to pitch at the big league level,” Prior said. “It’s taken awhile to get my arm healthy. But I still have the passion to play and I’m still 29; I’m not 39.”
Pitching in relief is part of the plan.
“I think my best chance is to come back as a reliever,” he said. “I think my body will handle that better than trying to throw 110, 120 pitches every fifth day.”
It doesn’t seem so long ago that Prior was considered the best young pitcher in baseball. The Cubs chose him with the second overall pick in the 2001 draft and signed him to a $10.5 million major league contract. By 2003, Prior made the National League all-star team and finished third in voting for the Cy Young Award after going 18-6, 2.43 with 245 strikeouts.
Then a series of injuries sabotaged Prior’s career.
In 2006, Prior missed the final six weeks with shoulder tendinitis. Shoulder surgery forced him out of the 2007 season. He tore a muscle while rehabilitating from that injury, leading to more surgery and another lost season in 2008.
“I’m not going to lie and say that I never wanted to say, ‘I’ve had enough,’ ” Prior said. “But I talked to enough people who told me, ‘If you’re going to shut it down, make sure that you’re not going to look back.’
“I couldn’t honestly look myself in the mirror five years from now and say, ‘I wish I had given it another shot.’ “
After signing with the Flyers on Aug. 3, Prior pitched 10 innings over eight games. During that span, Prior conceded only an unearned run, four hits and five walks while striking out 20 of the 40 batters he faced.
“I want to get out there as much as I can and see how my body responds,” Prior said. “Once I show everybody that I’m healthy, maybe get a full season under my belt as a reliever, then I’ll see what’s up.”
Those remarks come from someone who hadn’t thrown a competitive pitch since 2006.
“He’s showing signs of losing the rust that he had for four years,” Flyers manager Paul Abbott said. “Things that we’ve been talking about here are starting to click.”
Prior passed his biggest test when he made his first back-to-back appearances against Tijuana. On Aug. 26, Prior struck out the side on 10 pitches. The next night, he had one walk and one strikeout in his only inning, and threw 12 of his 20 pitches for strikes.
“Mechanically, he’s just so much more sound,” Abbott said. “He finally threw a fastball down and away for a strike. He had command of his breaking ball. It was crisp and sharp.
“A couple of outings ago, he topped out at 92 mph. The first time he threw for us before activating him, he was topping out at 89. He’ll probably go downhill before he’ll go uphill again. But I don’t see why he won’t get stronger than 92.”
Flyers catcher Jim Goethals, who reached Double-A in the Astros system, was even more enthusiastic.
“It’s really exciting to watch,” Goethals said. “You see that life (on his fastball), you see that sink, you see that hard break and you build off of that. He knows what he’s doing out there. He knows when he makes mistakes and what he needs to work on. In every outing, he continues to get better.”
Becoming a reliever, however, involves more than mastering technique.
“You can really map everything out to the minute as a starter,” Prior said. “As a reliever, there really is no map. You’ve got to judge elements in warming up. When do you get ready? Is it going to be a quick inning? A bad inning? But it’s fun, though. It keeps you on your toes.”
Prior’s agent, John Boggs, said 10 major league teams have scouted his client since the Flyers signed him, and they’ll assess how to proceed at the end of the season.
Goethals believes that Prior’s efforts can propel him beyond the Golden League.
“He’s never going to be the Mark Prior that he was,” Goethals said. “But at the same time, he can be just as effective with other stuff. I really think he deserves another shot out there.”
Joseph D’Hippolito is a freelance writerbased in Fullerton.