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Mark Prior and The Heartbreak Club


There were two eye-opening bits of news here in this story about Mark Prior retiring.

1. I honestly thought he retired five years ago.

2. Mark Prior is still only 33 years old.

The second of those bits is even more shocking than the first. He is STILL only 33? If Mark Prior had stayed healthy, he would only now be signing a seven-year, $190 million deal with the Mariners or somebody. Baseball can be an extremely cruel game.

Prior probably should have won the Cy Young Award in 2003, when he was just 22 years old. The award went to Eric Gagne because it was one of those periodic years when the voters fall in love with relief pitching all over again. Gagne had a superb year for a closer … but not markedly different from John Smoltz that same year, Trevor Hoffman in 1998 or Craig Kimbrel and Greg Holland this year. Prior pitched more than twice as many innings and was significantly more valuable.

Anyway, people had to figure Prior would win plenty of Cy Young Awards. Here are the greatest pitching performances since World War II for pitchers 22 or younger:

1. Dwight Gooden, 1985, 24-4, 1.53 ERA, league-leading 276 Ks.
2. Bert Blyleven, 1973, 20-17, 9 shutouts, 325 innings pitched.
3. Mark Fidrych, 1976, 19-9, league leading 2.34 ERA, 24 complete games.
4. Vida Blue, 1971, 24-8, league-leading 1.82 ERA, 301 strikeouts, Cy and MVP winner.
5. Larry Dierker, 1969, 20-13, 2.33 ERA, 305 innings, 20 complete games.
6. Sudden Sam McDowell, 1965, 17-11, league-leading 2.18 ERA, 325 strikeouts.
7. Mark Prior, 2003, 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 strikeouts.
8. Frank Tanana, 1975, 16-9, 2.62 ERA, league-leading 269 strikeouts.
9. Bret Saberhagen, 1985, 20-6, 2.87 ERA, Cy Young winner.
10. Frank Tanana, 1976, 19-10, 2.43 ERA, 261 strikeouts.

Of this list, only Blyleven went on to a Hall of Fame career. Tanana, who is on the list twice, blew out his arm and reinvented himself as a soft-tossing lefty. Dwight Gooden, Sam McDowell and Vida Blue all dealt with various demons and fell a few steps short of greatness. Larry Dierker had an up and down career, and Bret Saberhagen was alternately brilliant and injured.

Then, Mark Fidrych and Mark Prior belong to the same club, the heartbreak club. They each had one glorious year in the Major Leagues. Their bodies would not hold up for another. Fidrych felt his arm go dead in the middle of the next season. Prior had trouble with his achilles tendon the next year — people would always suspect it was his elbow and the Cubs just didn’t want to admit it. In 2005 he was pitching quite well and he got hit by a batted ball that smashed his elbow. In 2006 the Cubs announced that he had a “loose shoulder,” which does not seem like a medical term but Mark Prior was never even a decent Major League pitcher again.

Lots of people blame overwork for the fall of both Fidrych and Prior, and that does make some sense. Fidrych in particular was abused — from May 15 to August 29 that year he made 22 starts and pitched 198 innings. Quick math will tell you, he AVERAGED nine innings for those 22 starts. This is in part because he pitched 11 innings four times during the stretch and 10 innings once. It was pretty close to criminal.

Prior’s overuse was not nearly as pronounced, but people did notice even at the time that Dusty Baker was having Prior (and fellow phenom Kerry Wood) throw a lot of pitches. In September of 2003, during the pennant run, Prior threw 131, 129, 109, 124, 131 and 133 pitches in his six starts. It’s interesting: None of those were complete games. Even now, there is much disagreement about pitch counts and how best to protect young pitcher’s arms and so on. I guess the infuriating part with the Cubs was that there seemed no visible effort whatsoever to protect Prior’s arm. Maybe it wouldn’t have made any difference, but you sort of wished they would have at least made a show of it.

When Prior was young and right, he was all but unhittable. He had a fastball he could pump up into the high 90s and his better pitch was a curveball that was like setting the phaser to stun. His curve would just leave Major League hitters frozen — sometimes it seemed like they were still standing at the plate long after Prior had reached the dugout. He walked just 50 batters in his amazing season.

His effort to come back has been both touching and sad. Anyone can understand: He was destined to become one of the best pitchers in baseball history, and he had it taken away from him, and he had trouble accepting it. From Tennessee to Iowa, from Orange County to Oklahoma City, from Tampa to Scranton to Pawtucket to Louisville he chased ghosts, hoping against hope for some part of himself to return. I imagine that at times he snapped off the old curveball or fired a fastball that hopped a bit, and he found himself believing that he would come all the way back. Then there would be more pain.

The Chicago Tribune on Tuesday had a three paragraph note acknowledging Prior’s official retirement. The first few words were “Former Cubs Phenom Mark Prior.” And sadly, those are the last words too.

Wilson Ramos is seeking a 4-5 year deal

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 07: Wilson Ramos #40 of the Washington Nationals celebrates after driving in the game winning run with a single in the 11th inning against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park on September 7, 2016 in Washington, DC. Washington won the game 5-4. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
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Wilson Ramos’ agent tells the Washington Post that Ramos still plans to seek a four- or five-year contract this winter in free agency despite the fact that he’s recovering from knee surgery.

Yikes, good luck with that. Ramos suffered ACL and meniscus tears in late September 26 and his rehab will extend well into the 2017 season, when he will turn 30. This coming off a career year that may or may not be a fluke. It’d be hard to commit to him for more than, say, three years under the best of circumstances but given the knee injury it seems unlikely he’ll get offers of that length.

My guess is that he’ll get a lot of two-year offers which give him some rehab time and then a chance for a make-good year with incentives or vesting options. A straight multi-year deal, however, may be very hard to come by for Ramos. Who may very well be a DH very, very soon.

World Series Reset: Indians vs. Cubs Game 3

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 24:  Chicago Cubs fans visit Wrigley Field on October 24, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Cubs will face off against the Cleveland Indians in the World Series beginning tomorrow. This will be the Cubs first trip to the series since 1945. The Indians last trip to the series was 1948.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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The Game: Cleveland Indians @ Chicago Cubs, World Series Game 3
The Time: 8:00 PM EDT
The Place: Wrigley Field, Chicago
The Channel: FOX
The Starters: Josh Tomlin (Indians) vs. Kyle Hendricks (Cubs)

The Upshot:

As you may have heard, this is the first time a World Series has been played at Wrigley Field in 71 years. Cubs fans have had a lot of time to think about this one, but I assure you, they’re ready. Wrigley is going to be complete bedlam. Or a complete train wreck. Depends on your point of view and, probably, what time you’re walking around Wrigleyville.

The cold and rain of Cleveland is being replaced by some moderately unseasonable warmth in Chicago today. It’ll be in the 60s this afternoon and isn’t projected to cool down after the sun goes down. Between that and clear skies, it should be a lovely night for baseball. Unless you’re a pitcher, that is: strong winds are forecast to be blowing out tonight. That bodes poorly for Indians starter Josh Tomlin, who gave up 36 homers this season, which was just one behind Jered Weaver for most in baseball. The Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks is far better suited to such conditions, as he’s a groundball machine. Look for the Cubs batters to be taking some big uppercuts all night.

The Cubs won’t have Kyle Schwarber taking uppercuts, at least not all game long, but he could pinch hit. The Indians are strongly considering putting Carlos Santana in left field so they can keep both his and Mike Napoli‘s bats in the lineup in the DH-free NL park. The Cubs won 103 games this year without Schwarber, so they should be OK, even if he was a nice addition in Cleveland. Santana, on the other hand, has played exactly one game in the outfield in his major league career. That came in 2012. Do not expect Santana to be . . . smooth.

Cleveland is still looking at pitching Corey Kluber on short rest in tomorrow’s Game 4 and, if it goes that long, bringing him back again in Game 7. The “win all of Kluber’s starts and steal one elsewhere” approach is defensible, but this matchup seems less-than-ideal for the Indians in the “steal one” department. Hendricks has been solid as a rock down the stretch and in the postseason. Between his vexing stuff and a crazy crowd at Wrigley tonight Chicago seems poised to grab the momentum in this series tonight.