Mark Prior had it all. He was drafted second overall right out of USC in 2001 and the following year made his major league debut. His first year with the Cubs showed promise as he started nineteen games and finished with a 6-6 record and a 3.32 ERA. He struck out 145 batters in 116+ innings. But more than just his early record, talent evaluators were amazed at his mechanics and his command of the strike zone. His only problem that first year was the fourteen homers he gave up.
The following year, Prior (and Kerry Wood) led the Cubs to the brink of the World Series. Prior was phenomenal for the Cubs, finishing second in the Cy Young voting as he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 30 starts. He struck out 245 in 211+ innings, while only giving up 15 homers and 50 walks. He had a three run lead in the eighth inning of what would always become known as the Bartman game: 3-2 lead in the series, three run lead in the eighth inning with Mark Prior on the mound. But Cub fans would soon have their hearts ripped out and Mark Prior was a few months away from having his shoulder ripped out.
Today, every big league team seems to protect its young arms. The Joba Rules on the Yankees are a good example. Pitch counts are limited and plans are made to gradually build a pitcher up to a certain physical maturity. There was no such coddling of Mark Prior and maybe that led to his injuries. Here he was just two years removed from college ball, where he may have pitched 100 innings and he started 30 games in the regular season plus those starts in the playoffs. It was probably too much, too soon.
Prior won only 18 games the next three seasons as his injuries and lack of effectiveness mounted. He had shoulder surgery and missed all of 2007. The Cubs let him go. The Padres signed him to a minor league contract last year but his shoulder again blew out and he had to have another surgery and missed all of 2008 as well.
Give the Padres credit though. They signed him again this year to another minor league deal. They believe he has a chance to pitch this year. They believe his last surgery fixed what needed fixing. It's impossible not to hope they are right and that the chance they are taking on Prior rewards both he and them.
It would be great for baseball if Prior could make a comeback. After all, there are not a lot of pitchers who have a lifetime 10.37 strikeouts per nine innings as a starter. There are not many pitchers who have a lifetime strike out to walk ratio of 3.40 (it was an amazing 4.90 in his big year). Let's root for Mark Prior and hope he makes it all the way back this time.