Repeated injuries have robbed Mark Prior of a once-promising major league career. (Icon SMI)
So much for that hotly anticipated reunion between Dusty Baker and Mark Prior. On Friday, the Reds announced that they have released the 32-year-old righthander, who hasn't pitched since late April due to a shoulder strain.
Prior didn't figure heavily into the Reds' plans for 2013, he was a lottery ticket. A former number two overall pick by the Cubs out of USC and an All-Star who placed third in the 2003 Cy Young voting on the strength of an 18-6, 2.43 ERA season with 245 strikeouts, he hasn't pitched in the majors since 2006 due to a slew of shoulder injuries and other ailments. But any former first-round pick with a career mark of 10.4 strikeouts per nine who can still bring it around 90 mph is someone to whom teams will inevitably give another shot. So it was for the Reds when Prior reached out to Baker, who oversaw all of the pitcher's major league experience save for his 2002 rookie season.
If nothing else, Prior's action suggested that unlike much of the baseball community, he doesn't hold Baker responsible for the injury problems that resulted from his heavy workload. It has often been suggested that Prior's shoulder problems actually began with a violent 2003 collision on the basepaths with Atlanta's Marcus Giles; he landed on his throwing shoulder, and while he remained in the game, he missed his next four starts while on the DL with a sore shoulder.
Prior still showed occasional brilliance after 2003, though that was the only year he managed 30 major league starts. Here's a video clip from an Aug. 7, 2004 start against the Dodgers, when he struck out the first four hitters he faced:
Prior made one appearance with the Reds in spring training, pitching a scoreless inning in a March 21 exhibition against the A's. Assigned to the team's Triple-A Louisville affiliate to start the year, he made seven appearances totaling 9 2/3 innings, all of them between April 5 and April 21. He struck out nine, walked four (one intentionally) and allowed five runs in that span before going on the disabled list — surprise — on April 25 with a shoulder strain. It's unclear whether he asked for his release or not, or what the prognosis is for his shoulder after his latest setback.
Since 2007, Prior has made fitful progress through five major league organizations and an independent one. He was unable to pitch in a professional regular season game under the auspices of the Padres (2007, 2009), pitched 10 games totaling 12 innings for the Rangers and the independent Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League 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 in 2012. He notched 38 strikeouts in those 25 innings, but walked 23 and allowed four homers. A mid-August oblique injury spelled the end of his season, and he was released shortly afterward.
It remains to be seen whether Prior has the stomach — or the shoulder — for another comeback attempt. Perhaps he'll take up the knuckleball, as MLB Network's Harold Reynolds and Matt Vasgersian suggested in a Hot Stove segment back in February, before he signed with the Reds. At that time, he said of the prospect of landing another job:
"I know what the first question is when my name comes up: 'Is he healthy and can he stay healthy?' The next question is, 'Can he get guys out?' I think I've answered the second question, but it's the first question that I'm always going to have to prove and answer, and I know that."
Here's hoping that someday Prior can answer 'Yes' at least long enough to walk off a major league mound on his own terms as former teammate Kerry Wood did last year