Mark Prior was viral before viral existed, appointment viewing before the DVR, the proto-prospect. Certainly there were next big things before Prior, but his arrival with the Chicago Cubs hailed a shift in baseball, and especially baseball fandom, toward a culture in which fetishizing players before they've taken a single at-bat or thrown a single pitch in the major leagues is not just validated but expected.
With the Chicago Cubs' cadre of prospects causing -gasms of all manner and variety at Wrigley Field, it's amazing to think Prior prompted the same sort of frenzy in a world without social media and hashtags. May 22, 2002, wasn't #PriorDay; it was the arrival of the No. 2 pick in the draft from the year before, one of the most polished college pitchers in memory, a 21-year-old who struck out 79 over the 51 minor league innings he needed before arriving. Chicago teemed with excitement and expectation that night and showed why it's every bit the equal of New York and San Francisco when the Cubs are relevant.
"It's the best," Prior said this week from El Paso, Texas, where he was visiting the San Diego Padres' Double-A team in his role as the organization's pitching coordinator. "In 2003, '04, even '05, those three years – it was a blast. I don't think the Blackhawks were doing a whole lot. Everywhere you went, people knew you were a Cub. They knew all 25 of them, whether you were a superstar like Sammy Sosa or a Triple-A guy. They knew exactly how you did last night. It's great. It was packed every day."
Prior's brilliance was finite. He threw his last major league pitch at 25, injuries robbing him of a career and the Cubs of the sort of pitcher who could lead them to the World Series. He might be the biggest what-if for a franchise with more than a century of losing. He is living proof that prospecting is like driving down a potholed road in a car with a bad suspension.
Still, the rookie class of 2015 is shaping up to be one of the stronger in recent years. And as kid-heavy Chicago nears the end of April with the third-best record in the National League and the team ahead of them in the NL Central, St. Louis, reels from a season-ending Achilles' injury to ace Adam Wainwright, it would behoove …
1. Kris Bryant and the rest of the Cubs' rookies to listen to perhaps the only person who knows their plight: Prior. He's 34 now, wiser, better-equipped to understand that stardom in a Cubs uniform comes with great responsibility. And Prior's came before camera phones and selfie sticks.
"I probably didn't accept it as well as I could have," Prior said. "I like my personal space. It's not like you need to embrace it. But you need to accept it. That's part of your job. You're a public figure. At times I know I came off as standoffish or reserved. I think it was me trying to protect a little bit of my privacy."
At 6-foot-5, neither exactly blends in with a crowd, which doesn't help matters. Prior played homebody most of the time, a lesson Bryant may well follow considering how he has invigorated the 10-7 Cubs. Bryant's first nine games in the major leagues have been nothing short of smashing, and that's before he has hit a single home run, which should come any day now. He's been more patient than anticipated, drawing eight walks and sporting a .476 on-base percentage. He moonlighted in center field for a couple games, played a tolerable-enough third base and allowed ...
2. Addison Russell to arrive without the crushing wave of hype that would've accompanied him on all 29 other teams. He is the first of the new generation of shortstops to land in the major leagues, only because the Cubs don't want to transition Starlin Castro anywhere else midseason, Russell will spend the foreseeable future playing second base. Where, naturally, he did this.
Ten strikeouts in his first 18 at-bats didn't exactly distinguish Russell, but his bases-clearing double Sunday afternoon showed hints of the talent the Cubs knew was there when they thieved him from Oakland in last summer's Jeff Samardzija deal. Not every prospect comes up and gets on base half the time like Bryant, and it's nothing to panic about.
A few years ago, a prospect debuted and proceeded to put up a .220/.281/.390 slash line over his first 40 games. His name? Mike Trout. And this is not to say that Russell will be Trout – he won't – nor that failure is possible for the most highly touted. Just that when kids like ...
3. Carlos Correa make it to the big leagues, expecting immediate success is too much, no matter how good he looks. And Correa, who will play the entire season at age 20, could make a damn good case for being the best prospect in baseball with Bryant and Russell now in the big leagues and Byron Buxton off to a slow start after his lost season in 2014.
At Houston's Double-A affiliate, Corpus Christi, Correa is hitting .356/.415/.661 and playing the sort of shortstop seen from no 6-foot-4 players outside of Cal Ripken Jr. and Alex Rodriguez. He's a beloved kid, too, owning the clubhouse in low-A Quad Cities as an 18-year-old and, despite a season-ending leg injury, flying back from his rehab to watch his teammates in high-A Lancaster win a Cal League championship.
The first-place Astros have a good problem with Correa: There's no room for him in the big leagues, even though he's close to ready. Luis Valbuena is hitting for power and playing an above-average third base. Jed Lowrie is raking, as he can when healthy. Nobody is supplanting Jose Altuve at second base, and the outfield is overcrowded already, forcing Correa into a position with which …
4. Corey Seager is familiar. Seager is also 20, also 6-foot-4, also part of the group of ubershortstops coming through the minor leagues at the moment. He is hitting .433/.444/.750 and has struck out just seven times in 60 at-bats.
With Jimmy Rollins at shortstop and Justin Turner available to back him up, no compelling reason exists for Seager to start in the big leagues this year. The only question is whether the Dodgers will do with him what the Cubs did with Bryant and keep him in the minor leagues to start next season and save a year of team control.
If Seager can stick at shortstop – scouts think he's less equipped to do so than Correa – it's even better for the Dodgers, because in ...
5. Alex Guerrero they may have found their future third baseman. Or second baseman, because their future third baseman, Hector Olivera, still doesn't have a visa despite a $62.5 million deal awaiting him with the Dodgers. Or if the Dodgers re-up Howie Kendrick – hitting .303/.370/.561 in his walk year – maybe Guerrero goes to left field.
This much is evident: He needs to be playing for the Dodgers everyday now. No more of this but-what-about-Justin Turner? nonsense from Don Mattingly, who at this point is just manufacturing excuses to keep Guerrero's bat out of the lineup. He hit another home run Sunday. That's five in his first 21 at-bats. His slugging percentage is four digits.
As stabilizing an influence as Juan Uribe may be, neither his presence nor his glove nor the combination of both is enough at this juncture to take away at-bats from Guerrero. And if Mattingly can't bear the thought of that, Guerrero has played enough left field to acquit himself better than Carl Crawford is these days.
The ultimate realization with the Guerrero conundrum is that among him and Seager and Olivera and ...
6. Joc Pederson, the Dodgers are in the midst of an incredible infusion of talent. And that doesn't even count 18-year-old Julio Urías, who is carving up Double-A. Or that the Dodgers are overwhelming favorites to get 19-year-old Cuban Yadier Alvarez and his 99-mph fastball, a signing that would trigger a year of enormous international spending before MLB comes in and caps everyone with an international draft in 2016.
The Dodgers are doing just about everything right, and Pederson is the latest proof. Only Bryce Harper has more walks than Pederson's 15, and he has played a perfectly serviceable center field, certainly better than the Yasiel Puig-Andre Ethier-Matt Kemp-Scott Van Slyke quartet of stink from last season.
The next six seasons of Pederson at the top of a lineup with Puig and Guerrero and Seager and Olivera and Adrian Gonzalez and others they spend on or develop ought give ...
7. Archie Bradley the willies, though Bradley doesn't seem the sort to scare. He's the pitching headliner thus far in a bat-heavy rookie class, fighting off some control issues – 11 walks in 18 2/3 innings – to stifle the Dodgers in his debut, plus the Giants and Rangers. All three combined for just seven hits, and in validating his promotion to start the year, Bradley's performance also poses the question: Why didn't the Diamondbacks just skip one of his starts and save a year of free agency?
The Blue Jays took a similar attitude with relievers Miguel Castro and Roberto Osuna, skipping both from Class A to the big leagues. Castro already has pitched in 10 games, a heavy workload for any pitcher, let alone a 20-year-old thrust into the closer's role. Osuna has thrown 10 1/3 brilliant innings, positioning himself as the backup, absent the Blue Jays signing Rafael Soriano, which makes more sense by the day.
Other pitchers have shown flashes, from Cincinnati's Anthony DeSclafani (the return for Mat Latos) to unheralded Atlanta reliever Cody Martin to the similarly anonymous Chris Heston. Out-of-nowhere rookies are often the best kind, and while …
8. Devon Travis didn't exactly materialize out of nowhere like Nightcrawler, not even the Blue Jays saw this sort of power this soon from a Dustin Pedroia-sized second baseman. Despite a solid college career at Florida State, Travis dropped to the 13th round of the draft because of his size.
Detroit snatched him up, watched him rake in 2013 and put up a respectable .817 OPS at Double-A in 2014. A straight swap for Anthony Gose this offseason has gone decidedly in Toronto's favor, as Travis hit his fifth home run this week and has been better at second than expected. Gose, meanwhile, is hitting about the unlikeliest .333 possible: His batting average on balls in play is .560, and once that regresses and the strikeouts catch up to him, the results without an adjustment could be ugly.
Travis, meanwhile, is slugging .688, more than 100 points higher than the next rookie regular, fellow surprise second baseman Tim Beckham, whose pedigree as The Guy The Rays Took Instead of Buster Posey makes his early success that much more edifying for Tampa Bay. A couple spots down the list, beyond the Rays' slugging outfielder Steven Souza and just ahead of Toronto center fielder Dalton Pompey, is ...
9. Jorge Soler and his relatively disappointing slash line: .257/.321/.414. Compared to the rest of the league, it's slightly above average, but the expectations for Soler did not include strikeouts in 40 percent of his at-bats.
However similar their bodies, swings and oodles of talent, Soler and Vladimir Guerrero differ in one very important area: Vlad made lots and lots of contact. Vlad's highest-strikeout season came as a 23-year-old, like Soler is today; he struck out 95 times in 623 at-bats. Extrapolate Soler's rate out over a 623-at-bat season, and that equals – gulp – 249 strikeouts.
Soler's contact rate cratered this season, the sixth-worst in the league, ahead of only Mike Zunino, Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Carter, Pederson and George Springer. He's swinging at too many balls outside the strike zone and not making contact with enough of those he does. The league has adjusted to Soler; now it's time for Soler to adjust back. It's the same thing ...
10. Kris Bryant will face soon enough. He's not going to be posting .500 on-base seasons like he's Barry Bonds, and the book on him soon will be out. (The early verdict: lots of junk because he'll swing over off-speed pitches, and if you have to throw a fastball, elevate it, because he punishes low ones, particularly sinkers.)
It's early, of course, just 10 days into the Kris Bryant Era, less than a week into the Addison Russell Era. Time in Chicago today is B.S. – Before (Kyle) Schwarber – and once the rest of the gang arrives, it should be like 2003 and 2004 and 2005, exactly like it's frozen in Prior's mind.
"Once you play for an organization for any significant amount of time, you're always following it," Prior said. "It's like you're always following your college team or high school team. You're part of the history of the Cubs. It's the same if you're with the Yankees or Red Sox or Dodgers. Hopefully we're building that here in San Diego."
He can't help but hope good things for the Cubs, even though they could play the Padres in the postseason this year. Everything is lining up right, pushing the issue of Bryant's potential grievance against the Cubs to the background, where it's best suited. He's here now, and so are the Cubs, team of the zeitgeist, kings of the hashtag, ready to go viral before our very eyes.
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