Wednesday, December 07, 2005

of things abreu and prior

now that jim hendry has resuscitated some small hopes for a winning 2006 by getting his piece of the marlins fire sale, the cub general manager is faced with shoring up the remaining weaknesses on this unsteady club. this page suspects that shortstop will remain a sore point -- just how many a-list shortstops are trade bait, anyway? -- but there is the possibility of doing something fairly important in right field that might allow the cubs to be good enough to win in spite of a weak middle infield.

while we've previously considered the trade being rumored with the tampa bay devilrays -- which certainly cannot be off the board simply because pierre is now ensconced in center, and i continue to believe is hendry's next most likely move -- there are darker rumors about regarding the phillies and their rightfield anchor, bobby abreu.

there's certainly little wrong with abreu himself. a model of health and consistent production, he is a legitimate five-tool player who is capable of at least a few more 20-20 seasons before his legs start to give. he is intelligent at the plate, gets on base with true excellence (placing top 9 in the NL in obp four years running and seven of the last 8 seasons), and would be a real solution for the cubs. at 32, he is in his prime with the expectation of several more years of quality. he is really a younger brian giles with better speed (placing top 10 in the NL in steals six years running) and defense. it's beyond debate that abreu is a vastly superior player to aubrey huff.

there are also things abreu is not. he is not a great power hitter, for one -- he is more in the mold of a lyle overbay, a doubles hitter that has pop enough to reach the seats 20-25 times. he is not, in that way, a model cleanup hitter, where he would almost certainly bat for the cubs to break up lee and ramirez. but that is perhaps a small thing -- abreu consistently gets in the range of 300 total bases in a season, a rarified area reserved for only ten or so players in any year.

the stumbling block on this deal, according to the best sources available, is the phillies' desire to be compensated with a front-of-the-rotation starter -- which, in terms of the cubs, means mark prior.

at first blush, most cub fans would choke at the notion of dealing prior, who is certainly one of the most talented pitchers in recent cub history. when healthy, his capacity is of the very highest quality -- fine control, devastating stuff, wonderful mental preparation.

however, this is not everything. health has been a critical issue for prior. cub fans (including myself) have a long history of overrating our players, and i think prior is following in wood's footsteps on this count -- a talent of potential so brilliant that it blinds most to his shortcomings.

take an unvarnished look at prior. is he talented? no one doubts it. but he's also fragile. he's never put in more than 30 starts -- and may never.

many would look at the nature of his injuries and dismiss the notion of fragility -- the liner back through the box that sidelined him in 2005, for example, or the collision with marcus giles in 2003. i wouldn't argue those either. but not all his injuries have been coincidental -- elbow inflammation put prior out earlier last year, and was a recurrence of a similar problem which caused him to miss a september 2004 start. the achilles tendonitis that supposedly put prior on the shelf earlier in 2004 was long rumored to be, if not a cover for arm trouble, at least a consequence of delivery changes made by prior to overcome arm pain -- and then was later shown to be not just an achilles injury but the first bout of that still-unrectified elbow pain. notably, these troubles followed a 2003 season in which prior was one of the most abused pitchers in baseball, along with kerry wood, under the direction of dusty "pitcher-killer" baker.

then take a look at prior's monthly splits over his career -- 2003, 2004 and 2005. starting with his 2003 game log, following a brilliant april, one can see the deterioration in his performance in late june and early july -- just in advance of his collision with giles on july 11. then given a month away to recuperate, prior came back to throw an untouchable august, which again faded away in september to more mortal numbers. in 2004, burdened with the ankle and elbow repetitive stress injuries that were a consequence of the previous year's overuse, prior didn't make a start until june and suffered through a forgettable truncated year, pitching well only late in the year after a season composed of short outings.

in 2005, a well-rested prior started out strongly, pitching extremely well until the compression fracture of may 27. given another month away to heal, he came back solid -- but then, as use piled up over the course of july, prior began to resemble an injured pitcher again in august. his control became the subject of much speculation as prior missed more consistently than ever before, piling up high pitch counts in early innings.

the upshot of this analysis is to say that prior clearly isn't the same pitcher after a dozen starts that he is after a period of rest. that speaks to a fairly severe pain problem, one that the medication that prior is surely taking to control it isn't dealing with out on the mound.

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.

now, would you trade the pitcher i just described for a proven 32-year-old five-tool rightfielder?

i won't pretend to be able to predict the future -- it could well be that prior goes on to a long and productive career as a starter. the cubs certainly aren't so blessed with starting pitching that they can afford to move prior to the bullpen, much less philadelphia, without knowing that such a move is predicated on another move -- say, for barry zito -- to rebuild the rotation.

but a fair assessment of prior's career to date and what his future may look like should be tonic enough for both cub fans and jim hendry's front office to recognize that dealing prior for appropriate value is not only a possibility -- it may well end up being the best move for the cub organization on the field.

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