The second overall pick in the 2001 draft by the Chicago Cubs, right-hander Mark Prior came to the majors a year later with all of the promise in the world. Standing 6-foot-5 and weighing 23o pounds with thick legs and a pretty delivery, Prior looked like Hollywood had cast him to be the perfect pitcher in a movie.
And he was one of the best pitchers in the league in his second season, finishing third in Cy Young voting and ninth in MVP while also leading the Cubs to within five outs of the World Series. And yet, by the time Prior turned 23 years old, he was on the decline because of injuries to his shoulder and other body parts. He threw what would be his last big-league pitch about a month before his 26th birthday in 2006.
Prior announced his retirement Monday after several attempts at a comeback, most recently with the Reds in Class AAA. Hey, he held out longer than teammate Kerry Wood, who retired in 2012. Prior's final major league stats: a 42-29 record with a 3.51 ERA and 757 strikeouts in 106 starts. Now, he's interested in a front-office job with the San Diego Padres, his hometown team.
Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated tried to pinpoint what went wrong and why:
Including the postseason, the 22-year-old Prior threw 234 2/3 innings in 2003, that despite spending the second-half of July on the disabled list due to shoulder soreness. On the season, he threw more than 120 pitches in a game 10 times and more than 130 four times. From his first start in September through his complete game against the Braves in the Division Series, his pitch counts were 131, 129, 109, 124, 131, 133, 133. After that season, he was never the same.
Perhaps there is no better measurement of the impact Prior had than this: In 2003, at age 22, Prior made four starts of 130 or more pitches in 33 total starts between the regular and postseasons. In 2013, there were just four such games in all of the major leagues in 2,469 regular and postseasons games — none by a pitcher under the age of 25.
Former Cubs manager Dusty Baker is always going to get the blame for Prior getting hurt — and it's not without reason. We'll never know for sure if it was overuse by Baker at a tender age, something mechanical about Prior's delivery or the way he prepared, bad luck or some combination. No matter: His presumed destiny never materialized.
Prior's career does remind everyone that, no matter how talented you are and no matter how much it seems like the world is yours, nothing is guaranteed. Especially if you're a pitcher. Also: Root for the Cubs at your own risk.
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