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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.

Angels sign catcher Geovany Soto to one-year contract

Geovany Soto
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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As first reported by beat writer Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times, the Angels have signed free agent catcher Geovany Soto to a one-year major league contract.’s Alden Gonzalez says the deal is worth $2.8 million guaranteed.

Soto will offer some veteran presence at catcher for the Halos alongside 25-year-old Carlos Perez, who hit .250/.299/.346 as a rookie in 2015.

Soto slashed .219/.301/.406 with nine homers in 78 games this summer for the White Sox.

The 32-year-old backstop is a .246/.331/.434 career hitter at the major league level.

White Sox acquire right-hander Tommy Kahnle from Rockies

Tommy Kahnle
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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According to the official Twitter account of the Chicago White Sox, the club acquired right-hander Tommy Kahnle from the Rockies on Tuesday evening in exchange for minor league pitcher Yency Almonte.

Kahnle was designated for assignment by the Rockies last week in a flurry of moves made in preparation of next month’s Rule 5 Draft. The 26-year-old former fifth-round pick posted an ugly 4.86 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, and 39/28 K/BB ratio in 33 1/3 innings this past season for Colorado and he wasn’t much better at Triple-A Albuquerque.

Almonte, 21, had a 3.41 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, and 110/38 K/BB ratio in 137 1/3 innings this past season between Low-A Kannapolis and High-A Winston-Salem.

It’s a straight one-for-one deal of two non-prospects, and the timing of it — in the evening, with Thanksgiving approaching — has our Craig Calcaterra wondering whether an executive was just trying to get out of some family responsibilities …

Mark McGwire to become the Padres bench coach

Los Angeles Dodgers batting coach Mark McGwire roams the field during practice for the National League baseball championship series Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013, in St. Louis. The Dodgers are scheduled to play the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 1 of the NLCS on Friday in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

The other day Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the Padres were in discussions with former Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire about their bench coach job. Today Jon Heyman reports that the deal is done and will soon be announced.

McGwire has been the hitting coach for Los Angeles for the past three seasons. When his contract was not renewed following the end of 2015 he was rumored to be up for the Diamondbacks’ hitting coach job. He likely view staying in Southern California to be a plus, as he makes his home in Irvine, which is around 90 miles from Petco Park. That’s a long commute, but Mac can afford the gas, I guess.

How to talk to your family about the designated hitter at Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving Dinner

While political topics are normally the subject of awkward conversation at the Thanksgiving dinner table, hardcore baseball fans know that it can be just as awkward to talk about the game with relatives.

They don’t know baseball as well as you do — not by a long shot — but for some reason everyone thinks they have the God-given right not only to offer their baseball opinions but to demand acknowledgement that those opinions are correct. Baseball may be dying, you guys, but it’s vestigial status as our National Pastime makes everyone think they’re an expert by simple virtue of being an American. It’s maddening.

I can’t tell you how to keep your family away from sensitive topics, but here are brief answers to some frequently asked questions about the state of the game, and how you can defuse combustible conversations:

Will the National League adopt the designated hitter?

Despite the fact that the DH has been around four 43 seasons, your relatives — even those far younger than 43 — will loudly proclaim it to be a new-fangled abomination as they pass the sweet potatoes. While the best way to avoid conflict here is to say something like “I think the differences between the leagues are special and should be preserved” and try to quickly move on to something else, we don’t progress as a civilization by indulging foolishness in the name of peace. Tell your relatives that pitchers batting is dumb and that the DH should be universal. And then tell them to get their own sweet potatoes. You’re trying to eat here for cryin’ out loud.

Where will the big free agents go? Don’t the Yankees spend all of their big money and buy championships anyway?

My god, your uncle/cousin/sister’s boyfriend who probably shouldn’t be piping up about ANYTHING right now given that none of you really like him and it’s not going to last anyway is out of touch when it comes to such things. Tell them that the Yankees haven’t won jack since the first year of Obama’s first term and that even when they were winning the World Series all the time they did so on the back of homegrown talent, savvily-developed. Indeed, they STOPPED winning championships once they went huge on free agency and jacked up payroll and, despite the fact that they still owe a lot of old guys money, they are back to developing talent again and are way less likely to spend stupid money in free agency than they used to be. Careful here, though: people have strong feelings about the Yankees regardless of their ignorance and will likely fight back on this point. Maybe it’s safer just to discuss Obama. Here’s an idea to that end: how — as your drunk uncle claims — can Obama simultaneously be the least effective president ever AND a total dictator? Maybe Obama is one of those two things, but my drunk uncle has never given me a satisfactory answer to how he can be both.

Why doesn’t baseball have a salary cap? The players make too much money.

The idea of a salary cap in baseball is dead. Deader than vaudeville. It blew up the game in 1994-95, and the owners blinked rather than try it again in 2002.  Since then the money has been flowing, competitive balance has been better than most people will admit, and the owners seem to have very little desire to fight that fight again.  It’s not going to happen. Yet, for some reason — likely the Football Industrial Complex’s propaganda machine — every sports dilettante thinks that baseball not only needs a salary cap but that it’s actually something that could happen, even though it isn’t.

Here some ju-jitsu is in order. Rather than bog things down with facts which show that there is no need for a salary cap, turn the question around on them and ask them when the billionaires who own baseball teams will accept a cap on how much they should earn for their “labor.” When they spout off about how owners built the business themselves and are entitled to whatever they can get, ask them which of the current owners, who form a veritable Who’s-Who of Paper Movers, Genetic Lottery Winners and Men Who Were Born on Third Base Yet Think They Hit a Triple, built a dang thing. Peter Angelos, maybe. Just don’t tell them that he’s a rich plaintiff’s lawyer who had the union’s back during the 1994-95 strike.

What’s wrong with young players today? Why don’t they act professionally and respect the game? 

By this time your uncle may be so drunk on the Beaujolais Nouveau that he may actually slip and say “Latin players” instead of “young players,” and that’s assuming he’s polite enough to use words like “Latin” to refer to people from the Caribbean, Central and South America. If so, skip the lecture about how arguments regarding baseball decorum and “playing the game the right way” are really just proxies for cultural anxiety and creeping xenophobia and go directly to the inevitable conversation about immigration, refugees and Donald Trump. It’ll save you time and make everyone angrier way, way faster. And this is a wonderful thing.

Or, at least it is for me. I’m hosting Thanksgiving this year and the quicker people get to open warfare the quicker I can kick everyone out, bringing some peace and quiet back to my house. Plus: more pie for me.


(with both thanks and apologies to Brendan Nyhan of the New York Times)