Monday, August 14, 2006

the future of mark prior

even before this season began, this page was not shy about pointing out the silliness of relying on mark prior, kerry wood and wade miller to be the core of a major league pitching staff in 2006. the probability of bringing any of these three through to a material year, much less a successful one, was always quite low in the opinion hereabouts.

and so when kerry wood's season ended almost before it began, this page was unsurprised. and when wade miller found that his shoulder wouldn't support a fastball, it was equally unsurprised.

but in all sincerity, this page is a bit shocked at what has become of mark prior.

to be sure, it was remarked early and often that prior's troubles -- flimsily hidden by a veil of lies early on which was later at least in part pulled back -- were probably not insignificant. and when he was diagnosed with a minor rotator cuff tear, the sensible assessment seemed to be half a year lost. but this writer for one did expect to see prior pitch for some of this year anyway and that, when he did pitch, this page imagined that he would be some color of his former excellence -- diminished, perhaps, but isn't a diminished mark prior better than most pitchers on their best day?

but this season hasn't been so kind to prior and his mythos, who was savaged in nine starts to the tune of a 7.21 era. prior lacked both velocity and command all along -- surrendering 46 hits and 28 walks against just 38 k in 43.2 innings, less than five innings a start -- never looking even a shadow of his former self.

rumblings of shoulder problems for prior visited this page very early on, and prior has done nothing to dissuade us of the truth of that assessment since. though there certainly is room to think that what ails prior is simply the cascading effects of injury in a pitcher who continues to throw, it seems here that there is something very wrong in prior's arm -- more than the "tendonitis" that the cubs are labeling his season-ending visit to the disabled list with. given the time that prior was granted to overcome his initial rotator cuff diagnosis with -- a period that should have been sufficient, if not ample, if jose contreras is still the example, and which certainly would have calmed any tendonitis -- in combination his complete ineffectiveness at all points since -- before any new bout of tendonitis could have arisen -- this page is sometimes even given to wonder if the cubs aren't again battling a foe with which they have made themselves quite familiar, though there's certainly no evidence beyond speculation.

has it been a cascade of injuries or one undiagnosed problem all the way through? perhaps it can't be said from this vantage point. however, back in december of 2005 -- even before rumors of shoulder pain began to circulate -- there was a furor about the possibility of trading mark prior to philadelphia for bobby abreu. at that time, this writer said:

it could simply be that prior's arm is injured and needs a surgery that hasn't been prescribed yet for fear of the risk. but a balanced assessment has to also say that it could be more. it could be that prior's durability isn't equal to his talent, that his golden arm is both blessed and cursed. what i'm saying is that prior likely isn't ever going to be roger clemens or a nolan ryan. his career probably gets shorter and shorter with every tweak and injury bug. if i had to wager, i'd say that in a few years he may well be in wood's boat -- looking at a move out to the bullpen to preserve his tender arm. there have always been, after all, vastly more such pitchers in major league bullpens than there were durable aces in rotations.

it is beginning very much to seem as though that assessment, an echo of the story of kerry wood, has materialized sooner than anyone may have thought. prior remains a controlled contract for the cubs through 2008, and so it is likely that we will see this drama continue for another two years still. to a talent that has burned so brightly, the team is drawn rather like a moth -- not only unable to distance itself from the flame, but committed to it all but regardless of the consequences. but those consequences will remain perilous indeed if this team is constructed with the idea of relying on prior to pitch innings in the rotation.

this writer for one still believes that mark prior can have a future in this league, that he can be rehabilitated and even still be a starting pitcher. every day is another day more distant from 2003, a year when prior threw almost as many pitches as anyone in baseball (including his playoff appearances) and ranked fourth in regular season pitcher abuse as a 22-year old. prior largely hasn't been right since, but with the application of medical expertise may yet overcome what damage there is in his arm. though what comes after surgery may not be what cub fans remember from 2003, it may still be enough to constitute a good pitcher.

but the odds seem to get a little longer with every passing day. no one can say what the future holds for mark prior, but the visions of greatness that once circulated about his name have all but vanished. he cannot now be a central piece upon which to make plans for the future of the cubs if the cubs are to make serious preparations to build a winning club.

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