Mark Prior reunites with Dusty Baker on the Reds -- for now
Vladimir Guerrero isn't the only big-name veteran willing to attempt a comeback via a minor league deal this spring. Mark Prior, who last pitched in the majors on Aug. 10, 2006, signed a deal with the Reds and reported to camp on Friday along with their other minor league players. The now-32-year-old is quite the longshot, but he's a compelling one given his former talent and all that he's been through.
Prior once ranked among the game's top young pitchers. The second pick of the 2001 draft out of USC, he reached the majors in less than a year and struck out 11.3 per nine in 116 2/3 innings as a rookie in '02. The next year, he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and 10.4 strikeouts per nine for the Cubs, a showing good enough for an All-Star appearance and third place in the Cy Young voting.
Alas, shoulder injuries and a slew of other ailments prevented him from reaching those heights again. He made just 57 big league starts after 2003, along with seven trips to major league disabled lists between 2004 and 2008, and a pair of major shoulder surgeries in 2007 and 2008. Current Reds manager Dusty Baker, who managed him with the Cubs, has been blamed for Prior's woes, and indeed Prior ranked among the game's most heavily used pitchers. As Grantland's Rany Jazayerli, the co-creator of a metric called Pitcher Abuse Points during his time at Baseball Prospectus, summarized last year:
That  season, Cubs starters threw 120-plus pitches in a game 29 times, the most by any team in the past 12 years. Prior threw nine of those games — five of them in September alone. Here are Prior's pitch counts in September: 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133. In his first playoff start, he threw 133 pitches. In his second start, despite the Cubs being up 11-0 after five innings, he was left in to throw seven innings and 116 pitches. In his third playoff start, he tired in the eighth inning, and everyone blamed Steve Bartman.
Prior was never the same. He missed the first two months of the 2004 season with tendinitis in his ankle, but wasn't nearly as effective when he returned. He missed part of 2005 with inflammation in his elbow. And in 2006, after missing part of the season with shoulder inflammation, he came back and was shelled, posting a 7.21 ERA in nine starts.
For all the criticism of Baker, it's worth noting that he has become a better handler of pitchers; last year, the Reds' five starters all made at least 30 starts and four threw 200 innings, but only twice did a starter top 120 pitches, and none went higher than 122. While workload may have been a factor, Prior's injury woes have also been traced to his landing on his throwing shoulder following a violent collision in 2003 with Marcus Giles while running the bases — an injury that sent him to the DL for 24 days that season.
Any former first-round pick with a career 10.4 strikeouts per nine is likely to get another shot as long as he still wants one, and Prior is no exception. Since 2007, he has passed through four major league organizations and served a brief stint in the independent Golden Baseball League as well. He didn't make it into a professional regular season game under the auspices of the Padres (2007 and 2009), pitched 10 games totaling 12 innings for the Rangers' Triple-A Oklahoma City affiliate and the independent Orange County Flyers in 2010, pitched 11 games totaling 12 innings at three stops in the Yankees chain before being sidelined by a groin injury in 2011 and threw 19 games totaling 25 innings for the Red Sox Triple-A Pawtucket affiliate last year. He whiffed 38 in those 25 innings, but walked 23 and allowed four homers; he also missed time due to an oblique injury and was released in mid-August. Prior has been able to reach the low-90s with his fastball during his comeback attempts, and he has whiffed a total of 77 hitters in 49 innings during said attempts. If he could stay healthy for a few moments, he could be a useful reliever, but as he's shown time and again, that's one of the biggest ifs anywhere in baseball.