As fans we tend to forget how unforgiving the game of baseball can be amongst it’s players. In some cases, guys with tremendous talent can have their careers ripped away in an instant due to various circumstances. Unfortunately for others, players may be subjected to a slow, painful career death. A death that can be considered shortcoming. Sadly, this was the case for former Cubs phenom Mark Prior.
Mark Prior announced his retirement at age 33 after throwing his final pitch in Major League Baseball seven years ago. It was a long time coming for Prior who made several comeback attempts to pitch again in the majors before calling it quits. One can remember the once storied career of Mark Prior, especially the remarkable start he enjoyed after being signed out of USC back in 2001.
In his rookie season, Prior managed to go 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 116.2 innings as a starter. What stood out from the mechanically sound Prior was his k/9 ratio as he averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings, a number higher than Justin Verlander who owns a career k/9 of 8.5. Strike outs were a common theme for Prior in his rookie year as he totaled 147 ks opposed to just a mere 38 BB in 19 starts. Prior finished tied for 7th in the 2002 rookie of the year voting. What could have been?
Here’s when things got interesting for Mark Prior. In 2003 the infamous, “Bartman Game” occurred and the “Lovable Losers” were anything but lovable. Before I go any further, I’d just like to remind everyone that Steve Bartman is not to be blamed for the historic collapse in game 6 of the NLCS. If Alex Gonzalez turns that double play to end the inning, Steve Bartman doesn’t become a household name. At any rate, people seem to forget that there was a season played before the 2003 playoffs. It was a good one for the Cubs and especially good for Mark Prior.
At this point, Mark Prior is coming off a notably exceptional rookie season and looks to build upon his already impressive repertoire. In 2003 Mark Prior headlined the Cubs starting rotation with the likes of Kerry Wood, Matt Clement, and Carlos Zambrano. This was when Cubs fans around the world started seeing the perfection that is Mark Prior. That year he went 18-6 with 3 complete games and an ERA of a whopping 2.43. Shockingly, that wasn’t the most impressive part of his season as he recorded an unheard of 245 strike outs in 211 innings. The magic didn’t stop there as he threw a complete game 2 hitter against the Atlanta Braves in game 3 of the NLDS, beating former Cub great and future Hall of Famer, Greg Maddux. Prior, along with the likes of Kerry Wood and company, helped bring the Cubs to their first NLCS appearance since 1989. Prior finished that season as an All-Star, 3rd in NL Cy Young award voting, and 9th in MVP voting.
I’m going to purposely forget to mention how that year’s NLCS ended as if this trip down memory lane isn’t painful enough.
Yes, Mark Prior had an outstanding 2003 but went unsaid was he averaged 113.4 pitches per start that year while adding another 12o pitches per post season start. As a result, Prior struggled staying healthy during the 2004 season. He was forced to miss the first two months of the season due to an achilles injury. Prior finished with a sub par campaign going 6-4 with a 4.02 ERA in just over 100 innings.
2005 looked to be the perfect bounce back year for the young phenom but again Prior was forced to start the season on the DL. Shortly after he returned from injury, he was hit with a comeback line drive that fractured his elbow sending Prior to yet another DL stint. He finished that year going 11-7 with a 3.67 ERA in 27 starts. What could have been?
The wheels began to slowly fall off the former All-Star in 2006 as he entered the season on the DL yet again, this time for a shoulder strain. Upon returning, Prior struggled in 4 starts going 0-4 with an ERA over 7 before being, you guessed it, placed on the DL again from an oblique strain.
It didn’t get much better from there as he finished the 2006 season where he started, on the disabled list after being diagnosed with tendinitis. His season ended in August after posting an abysmal 7.21 ERA in just 9 starts. What could have been?
Prior learned there was structural damage in his throwing shoulder and underwent surgery ending his 2007 season before it started. He was released at the end of the year which ended Prior’s tenure as a Cub.
Comeback stories in Major League Baseball are always interesting and enjoyable to follow, especially ones that end with a happy ending. In Mark Prior’s case, his ending was anything but happy. Things got worse for Prior as he attempted a comeback from his recent shoulder surgery after signing with the San Diego Padres on a 1 year deal. During his rehab, Prior suffered a shoulder tear that would ultimately cause him to miss the entire 2008 season as well. Prior failed to make it to the majors in 2009 after signing a minor league deal with the Padres. What could have been?
One thing nobody should take away from Mark Prior is his commitment and dedication. After 2 shoulder surgeries a lesser man would have called it quits, but in 2010 Prior began his comeback attempt in independent ball. In September 2010, Prior agreed to a minor league contract with the Texas Rangers hoping to be a long/middle relief pitcher but failed to reach the majors yet again.
His journey wasn’t over yet as he signed a 1 year minor league contract with the New York Yankees. After a promotion to the Yankees AAA affiliate, Prior’s year ended with an unfortunate groin injury. And I thought I was ridden with bad luck.
Prior continued to fight, however, as he signed another minor league contract to join the Boston Red Sox in 2012. Prior was yet again released and was granted free agency. This is starting to sound like a broken record.
In his final attempt at a Major League comeback, Prior signed a minor league deal with the Cincinnati Reds at the start of 2013. Prior was released in late June and eventually announced his retirement from Major League Baseball in December of the same year.
The maddening part of Mark Prior’s short major league career is of course the injuries. Although, what may be more maddening is that he’s only 33. Prior may have possibly been apart of the Chicago Cubs organization for years to come. Who knows, maybe he’s the Cubs ace right now. I understand that’s unlikely but no one can predict how a player’s career will play out, Mark Prior is the perfect example.
After such a promising start to a young career, things started spiraling out of control for the excellence of mechanics, Mark Prior. Whether he was mismanaged by then Cubs manager Dusty Baker, or he just fell victim to another random Cubs curse, there’s one thing someone must ask them self when regarding Mark Prior; What could have been?