Prospect Lookback: Mark Prior

Mark Prior, one of the most celebrated pitching prospects of all time but one who never fulfilled his promise because of injury, is retiring after numerous attempts to return to the majors, reported.

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Prior, 33, has not pitched in the major leagues since 2006. He has attempted comebacks in independent leagues and in the minors with several clubs, including most recently the Reds, seeking to make it as a reliever.

Prior, the second overall pick in the 2001 draft behind Joe Mauer and the man who led the Cubs to the brink of the 2003 World Series, made his major league debut less than a year after he was drafted. In 2003 he went 18-6, 2.43 with 245 strikeouts in 211 innings and finished third in National League Cy Young Award voting.

But injuries began to dog him soon after that, and by 2006 he made just nine starts in the majors and four in the minors before having shoulder surgery.

Interestingly, Prior’s picture-perfect form was one of the things that made him such a coveted prospect—along with his devastating stuff. Coming out of high school in San Diego in 1998, Prior was a supplemental first-round pick by the Yankees (43rd overall). He didn’t sign and went to Southern California instead, becoming one of the best college pitchers of his era. After battling control problems his first two years, he went 15-1, 1.69 as a junior in 2001, with 202 strikeouts and 18 walks in 139 innings. He led Southern California to the College World Series (the Trojans’ most recent appearance) and was the consensus choice as the top prospect in the 2001 draft.

“All the superlatives come out when Prior’s name is mentioned in coaching and scouting circles,” BA wrote before the draft. “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.”

The Twins, who had the No. 1 pick that year, were wary of Prior’s reported signing bonus demands, however, and with a legitimate alternative (and a local hero to boot) in Joe Mauer, they passed on Prior. The Cubs snatched him up at No. 2 and signed him to a five-year major league contract worth $10.5 million, at the time the largest guaranteed payout ever to a drafted player.

Prior immediately became the Cubs’ top prospect, and we wrote in part about him before the 2002 season:

“Flirting with a no-hitter against Louisiana State at the 2000 College World Series and starring that summer with Team USA’s college squad positioned Prior as the top pitching prospect for the 2001 draft. By the end of the season, several scouts called him the best college pitching prospect they had ever seen . . .

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“Prior has everything scouts dream about in a pitcher. He throws his fastball at 94-97 mph, and his uncanny command of the pitch may be more impressive than its considerable velocity and life. Some scouts say they’ve never seen a 20-year-old pitcher locate his fastball at will like Prior does. He also can overmatch batters with his 12-to-6 curveball, another potential plus-plus pitch. Southern California coach Mike Gillespie insists Prior has a pretty good changeup, though he had little reason to give college hitters a fighting chance by throwing it. Prior has a classic pitcher’s body at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds; his mechanics are flawless. He’s intelligent, poised and dedicated to his craft. His only real need is experience . . . Scouts look at him and see the next Roger Clemens.”

Prior became the rare prospect who generated buzz at the gate for minor league teams, and both the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx—the Southern League franchise that was the Cubs’ Double-A affiliate at the time—and the Triple-A Iowa Cubs promoted his presence on their rosters in 2002. He wasn’t at either place very long, however, making just nine major league starts before debuting in Chicago on May 22. He went 6-6, 3.32 in 19 major league starts that season before his breakout 2003 performance.

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The Cubs famously came within five outs of reaching the World Series that season, defeating the Braves in an NL Division Series and losing to the Marlins in the NL Championship Series. It was Prior who was on the mound when the Steve Bartman/Moises Alou foul ball incident took place in the eighth inning of Game Six, and he and the Cubs fell apart after that, giving up eight runs in the inning to lose 8-3, and then dropping Game Seven with Kerry Wood on the mound.

Still, after a significant playoff run and two young aces in Prior and Wood, Cubs fans had to feel good about the coming decade. Injuries kept that dream from coming to pass, though. Prior made just 57 major league starts after 2003, battling injuries over the next few years ranging from his Achilles to a compression fracture in his elbow. He split time between Chicago and the minors from 2004-06, then finally had shoulder surgery in 2007 that knocked him out for the entire season.

After 2007, the Cubs allowed Prior to depart as a free agent, and he signed with the Padres. He wasn’t able to pitch in 2008 or 2009, however, and the Padres released him late in the 2009 season. He finally got back on a professional mound late in the 2010 season with the Orange County Flyers of the independent Golden League, allowing no earned runs in 11 innings of relief. Those flashes of promise prompted the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Reds to all give him a look over the next three years, but he never fully returned to form and never made it back to the major leagues.

Prior finishes his career with a 42-29, 3.51 mark in 657 major league innings, and a role as one of the most prominent cautionary tales among touted young pitchers.