- Buster Olney, Senior Writer, ESPN Insider
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It's easy to forget that Mark Prior is only 22 years old, with 44 starts in the major leagues. He makes you forget.
Sandy Koufax bounced around the Dodgers for years before he finally figured it all out. Pedro Martinez had a great arm, but wouldn't put together his entire repertoire until after the Dodgers traded him to Montreal. Dwight Gooden had everything when he started and couldn't figure out how to handle it all.
But Prior pitches and competes like he's already qualified for the players' 10-year pension package. There is no wildness, no unnecessary adrenaline to burn off, no pitches to perfect; he is already there, and seemingly with an awareness of what he should be doing and how he should be doing it at all times.
Prior shut out the Cardinals for eight innings, in the first of five games between the NL Central contenders, allowing five hits in a 7-0 victory, and he just did not make mistakes. The game was still scoreless in the top of the fifth and St. Louis catcher Mike Matheny reached third base with two outs. Orlando Palmeiro, a pesky contact hitter, was at the plate, with Albert Pujols on deck.
It was a classic trap for a young pitcher: with the dangerous MVP candidate looming, Prior might have gotten too casual with Palmeiro and made a bad pitch. There was also the risk of being too careful with Palmeiro and walking him, bringing Pujols to the plate; Pujols came into the game with six hits in 11 at-bats in his career against Prior, including three homers.
Prior had been throwing 92-93 mph, straying once to 99 mph in the third inning. And suddenly, facing Palmeiro, Prior ratcheted up his velocity, to 94-95 mph, pounding Palmeiro with fastballs. The count reached one ball and two strikes and Palmeiro fouled off three consecutive pitches. So Prior threw another fastball, this at 97 mph, and Palmeiro flied out weakly to left field to end the inning.
Opposing hitters have come to the plate 20 times against Prior with a runner at third base, and they have only three hits, all singles. And nine strikeouts. With runners in scoring position and two outs, opponents are 11-for-62, for a .177 average, and 25 strikeouts.
It's not supposed to be this easy (and it might not be, if Cubs manager Dusty Baker continues to allow Prior to throw 131 pitches despite 7-0 leads, as he did in Monday's game).
Five major-league general managers participated in an informal poll Monday, answering this question: If you were starting a franchise today, name five players you would want. Prior, Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols were the only players mentioned by all five GMs, and Prior was ranked as the No. 1 player by two GMs, No. 3 by two other GMs, and No. 4 by the last GM. (A-Rod got two first-place votes, Toronto's Roy Halladay had the other. Among the other players mentioned: Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Carlos Beltran, Vernon Wells, Andruw Jones, Eric Gagne and Mets rookie shortstop Jose Reyes).
"He's probably as far along as I've ever seen a 22-year-old kid be," Cubs catcher Damian Miller said earlier this summer. "A finished product at 22 -- you can tell not only by his stuff, but by his demeanor on the mound."
"He makes pitches when he has to. You would think that a 22-year-old kid would fall apart on the mound, but he just doesn't. That's what impressed me the most."
"Mark is very special," said Joe Girardi, who caught Prior last year with the Cubs and was impressed with how Prior asked questions and related to older teammates.
In the spring of 2001, it was already conventional wisdom that Prior would be the first pitcher in the June draft. But as Cubs scouting director John Stockstill watched Prior, he could see other reasons that Prior would be an immediate success, beyond his powerful arm.
Prior's mechanics are smooth, free and easy, deceptive. He throws the ball almost like an infielder, as the Yankees' Mariano Rivera does, everything compact and relaxed -- and the ball just rockets out of his hand, bull-rushing the hitters. Prior throws two different speeds of curveball, and Stockstill noticed that Prior worked them low in the strike zone, so far down that Prior sometimes could not get them called for strikes by college umpires. Those are the kind of curveballs, Stockstill thought, which will cut up the bottom part of the major-league strike zone.
(A crossroads in history: Prior was originally drafted by the Yankees in 1998, but turned down a $1.4 million offer and went to college. That thought has probably never crossed George Steinbrenner's mind, as he tries to think of ways to re-stock his pitching staff).
Prior's curveballs are excellent pitches on their own, but his curves serve him two ways -- by breaking downward, and for the change of speed. Facing the Cardinals, Prior sometimes would follow a 95 mph fastball with a 79 mph curveball.
"You hope that young pitchers stay healthy," Stockstill said this spring, "but he's got so much going for him."
Prior is 14-5 with a 2.36 ERA and has five starts remaining in the season. It's apparent that if the Cubs are going to win their division, they will ride him into October. He's just 22 years old. He makes you forget that.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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