Commentary

Prior: Can't-miss kid to comeback bid

He isn't the stud the Yanks drafted in '98, but ex-Cubs star is here, humbled and hungry

Updated: February 26, 2011, 5:34 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- A case can be made that the high point of Mark Prior's career came on a 2-1 pitch to Mike Mordecai in the eighth inning of a National League Championship Series game on Oct. 14, 2003.

Mordecai flied out, and Prior and the Chicago Cubs stood just five outs from their first trip to the World Series in 58 years.

That was the last out Prior would get that day. Two batters later, Luis Castillo's foul ball would become known as The Bartman Incident; three batters later, Prior would be out of the game; and by the end of the inning, what had been a 3-0 Cubs lead over the Marlins was an 8-3 deficit.

Needless to say, the Cubs never got to the World Series. And Prior, once considered a Hall of Fame talent, is now just trying to get back to the major leagues.

[+] EnlargeMark Prior
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallYankees hopeful Mark Prior last pitched in 2006, when he made nine starts for the Cubs.

That he and the New York Yankees have come together this spring is probably a measure of where each of them is and where each has been.

Prior has been on the Yankees' radar since 1998, when he was a prospect out of University of San Diego High School, and they were on their way to winning 125 games -- postseason included -- and the second of five World Series titles.

The Yankees drafted Prior in the second round back then, then lost him, not to another team, but to Vanderbilt University.

That they finally come together now, the pitcher with the damaged arm and the team with the depleted pitching staff, lends a welcome element of drama to what has been in most respects a rather routine camp.

Prior won just 18 more games spread over three injury-marred seasons after the Bartman game and hasn't thrown a pitch in a major league ballgame in nearly five years.

For all the bogus talk about the $200 million Yankees somehow being underdogs this season, the only real underdog in their clubhouse is the tall, lanky right-hander who wears No. 31 on his back.

The chances of Prior making it with the Yankees are about as likely as Bartolo Colon hitting the salad bar. And yet, their pitching needs are desperate enough and Prior's potential still is considered high enough that they brought him to camp on a minor league deal worth $750,000 if he makes the club, with another $750,000 in incentive bonuses built in.

But it is an uphill battle for a pitcher, even one just 30 years old, to compete for a job against a slew of young arms when he had just 12 innings under his belt in 2010, 11 of them for the Orange County Flyers of the independent Golden Baseball League.

Prior knows the deal, and he knows the odds. As a young stud pitcher for the Cubs, he had a reputation for being aloof, even arrogant. But it is a soft-spoken, humbled man who inhabits his uniform now, content to do his work and retire to the most private back corner of the Yankees' spring clubhouse, at the locker once occupied by Bernie Williams.

Ask him what he is doing here, and Prior doesn't sugarcoat the words.

"It was a job, first and foremost, and there aren't too many of them around," he said. "If I would have waited until the end of January, would other things have popped up? Maybe. But I wasn't in a position to take that chance."

Instead, he is lumped in with a group of young pitchers throwing live batting practice early in the morning under the unblinking gazes of a manager, a pitching coach, a GM, several scouts and countless know-it-alls. It is a long way from where he was in 2003, having just come off a stellar season: 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts in 211 innings. And still just 22 years old.

"It's been hard, but it's life. A lot of people go through struggles in their careers," he said. "It's not always gonna be the script that everyone wants, but that's life. It may not be fair, but you move on."

There have been numerous theories as to why Prior and his staffmate Kerry Wood flamed out early in their careers, most involving manager Dusty Baker's overuse of their young arms. Prior refuses to look back or point fingers, because really, what good would it do and what difference would it make?

"I think at this point of my life I'm not one to worry about what's happened. I'm just focusing on what's happening now," he said. "Do I look back on the past? Yeah. Reflect on the good times? Yeah. But as far as worrying about it and asking, what if, it's not me. Maybe eight years ago, it might have been me, but not now."

Now, Prior's focus is on recapturing some of what he had eight years ago. The 95 mph fastball is gone, but he says he can get by at 92-93, a level he has yet to reach this spring. He added a third pitch, a slurve, to his fastball-curveball repertoire and now mixes in an occasional changeup.

And even though he was a monster in the Golden league -- Prior allowed just five hits and no earned runs and struck out 22 in his 11 innings as a Flyer -- he knows he has a long way to go to retire major league hitters.

"I'd be lying if I said there wasn't some nerves," Prior said. "There were nerves for my first bullpen. I'm not gonna lie and say this is no big deal, but that's part of the job whether you've been here 10 years or haven't played here at all. That's one of the biggest things about pitching, being able to control your emotions out there and then being able to execute physically."

After Prior's live BP session Friday, manager Joe Girardi, who has been effusive in his praise of most of his pitchers so far, was decidedly lukewarm.

"I thought he threw the ball better as batting practice went on," Girardi said. "He started getting the ball down and he started getting his curveball over. I've been pleasantly surprised by how he's looked. You think about all the surgeries he's had and all the time he's missed, it's pretty good."

Mark Prior
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesMark Prior was pitching a three-hit shutout for the Cubs in the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. Then the Bartman incident happened.

Larry Rothschild, who served as the Cubs' pitching coach through both Prior's rise and fall, said, "It doesn't look like he's significantly different, but he's got to go through all the paces and stay healthy. That's going to be the biggest thing. We're not going to know a lot until we get to games. It's not going to happen overnight."

The Yankees say they haven't put a radar gun on Prior's fastball but estimate he is throwing "close to 90 mph." Prior says he was hitting 91 for the Flyers.

But neither the team nor the pitcher expects to see anything like what the Cubs and the rest of baseball saw right up to that eighth inning of the 2003 NLCS. Prior knows that for now at least, his days as a starter are over. He hopes to remake himself as a middle reliever, the way Wood did for the Yankees over the second half of last season. Along with that comes the adjustment all former flamethrowers have to make, from thrower to pitcher.

"As of right now, I'm taking the same approach that I always take," he said. "Locate my fastball and pitch off that. I just don't know what that fastball is gonna be. But I've been in a lot of situations, so even if I don't have the same stuff that I used to, I definitely still know how to pitch."

Said Girardi: "I think he understands that there's a lot of work to be done on his part. He has to prove that he can stay healthy and have a good camp. But we know we're going to go through a lot of pitchers over the course of a season. And if the opportunity's not there when we break camp, it could be later on."

It took the Yankees and Mark Prior 13 years to finally find one another. It doesn't seem to make much sense for either side to rush things now.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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