It’s hard to forget Mark Prior. He dominated baseball at the highest level, but he’s now known more so for what could have been.
Check out Wikipedia, and it says that “he is also best known for a string of injuries that halted his major league career.”
Prior was drafted second overall behind Joe Mauer in the 2001 amateur draft, and he received a whopping $10.5 million signing bonus—a record that stood until Stephen Strasburg happened. Prior only needed nine starts in the minors before earning a callup to the Bigs.
And he dominated. Boy, did he dominate.
Prior made 19 starts in his rookie season and posted a 3.32 ERA with 147 strikeouts and just 38 walks in 116.2 innings. His season, though, was cut short when he strained a hamstring while running the bases.
2003 came along, and he put up even more dominating numbers. A 2.43 ERA. 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings. Just 50 walks and a miniscule 1.10 WHIP. He was named to an All-Star game after just over a full season of big league play.
But Prior didn’t end up playing in the All-Star game. Just before the All-Star Break, he collided with Atlanta’s Marcus Giles, and Prior missed the Mid-Season Classic along with three additional starts.
Although he wouldn’t miss any more starts that season because of injuries, 2003 was the beginning of the end for Prior’s career.
The Cubs won the NL Central, thanks to heavy use of their young pitching duo of Prior and Kerry Wood. And I mean heavy use of Prior and Wood. Prior averaged over 113 pitches per start in the regular season, including 126 pitches per start in September. Come playoff time, Prior averaged 120 pitches per start.
Of course, you know the story of how the 2003 playoffs went. The Cubs were up 8-3… Steve Bartman… 8 run Marlins rally… Florida takes Game 7… blah blah blah.
But after logging so many innings and tossing so many pitches in his second season, Prior never quite looked the same. He made 59 more starts over the next three seasons, but he sported a 4.27 ERA with growing walk rates and shrinking strikeout rates. Not only that, but he faced six different injuries from Achilles to elbow to shoulder to oblique.
Prior’s 2007 campaign ended before it even got off the ground when he had to have shoulder surgery after one minor league start. For the Cubs, that was enough frustration for a century, and they non-tendered him that off-season, granting him free agency.
Prior attempted a comeback with his hometown Padres for the 2008 season, but another shoulder tear ended that fairy tale. Fate wasn’t in his favor for his second attempted return to the majors with San Diego, as he wasn’t healthy enough to throw a single pitch in a game either season.
He again tried comebacks in 2010 and 2011 with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, respectively, but he only managed to pitch a combined 24 innings for both minor league systems. The one thing he did manage to do, though, was add a groin injury to his laundry list of maladies.
All of this brings us to Prior today. Coming out of the Pawtucket Red Sox bullpen, he doesn’t have his same blazing fastball, but he can still put on a show.
It’s a small sample size, but Prior is showing some serious promise. In five relief appearances, he’s racked up 15 strikeouts in 6.2 innings with three hits, four walks, and most importantly no earned runs.
With that said, the Red Sox are being extremely cautious, and rightfully so. Prior has been given off three to four days off between relief appearances, and he’s never faced a more than eight batters in an outing.
But this provides hope—not just for Prior, but for pitchers who’ve seen their careers decimated by injuries. Pitchers like Ben Sheets. And pitchers like Jon Garland. It’s unlikely that any of those three former workhorses will ever start more than a few major league games again—although Sheets threw for four teams on June 13th—but all three could become major leaguers down the road.
Those three are all still relatively young (Prior is 31, Garland 32, and Sheets 33), so they still have something left in the tank. Injuries will prevent them from remaining starting pitchers, but they can still be valuable relievers.
Pitchers like Prior can follow the mold of Alfredo Aceves. No, not the “closer” with the 4.81 ERA from this season, but the Jack of all Trades reliever who could fit into any role from 2011.
Last year, Alfredo Aceves logged 112 innings. He was the team’s mop-up man, one of the most trusted set-up guys, twice earned saves, and even made four spot starts. Whatever the Red Sox needed, he gave them.
Just because pitchers like Prior, Sheets, and Garland haven’t pitched in the majors in years doesn’t mean they’re completely done. All team can use more pitching depth, and nearly every contender seems to be looking for bullpen help at the trade deadline.
With tempered expectations, patience, and caution to injuries, Mark Prior and pitchers of his ilk can still make an impact at the major league level. Just look at how Prior’s former teammate Kerry Wood reinvigorated his career as a reliever in the last six seasons.