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Mark Prior and The Heartbreak Club

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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.

Report: Indians acquire catcher Jonathan Lucroy from the Brewers

MILWAUKEE, WI - MAY 31:  Jonathan Lucroy #20 of the Milwaukee Brewers rounds the bases after hitting a home run in the second inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at Miller Park on May 31, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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The Indians have acquired catcher Jonathan Lucroy from the Brewers, Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports. Lucroy still has to waive his limited no-trade clause, and the two teams are reviewing medicals before the deal is finalized.

The Brewers are reportedly receiving four players in the deal, three of which are currently known: catcher Francisco Mejia, shortstop Yu-Cheng Chang, and outfielder Greg Allen. The fourth as yet unknown player is a “lesser prospect,” per Rosenthal.

Lucroy, 30, leaves the Brewers having hit .300/.360/.484 with 13 home runs and 50 RBI in 375 plate appearances. He earned his second All-Star nomination, representing the National League at Petco Park nearly three weeks ago. Lucroy represents a huge upgrade behind the dish for the Indians, who have gotten a major league-worst .501 OPS from their catchers this season. Lucroy is owed the remainder of his $4 million salary for this season and the Indians will have a $5.25 million club option for 2017 with a $250,000 buyout.

Mejia, 20, was regarded as the Indians’ sixth-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. He spent most of the season with Single-A Lake County, batting .347/.384/.531 in 259 plate appearances. That led to a promotion to High-A Lynchburg near the end of June. Mejia, a switch-hitter, is currently on an impressive 42-game hitting streak in the minors.

Chang, 20, hit .273/.347/.493 with 12 home runs and 69 RBI in 419 PA with Lynchburg. He has experience playing third base as well as shortstop, but because he doesn’t have a strong arm, he projects better at shortstop going forward. MLB Pipeline rated him as the Indians’ 12th-best prospect.

Allen, 23, was considered the Indians’ 22nd-best prospect by MLB Pipeline. A switch-hitter, he batted .298/.424/.402 with 24 extra-base hits, 31 RBI, 93 runs scored, and 38 stolen bases in 432 PA for Lynchburg before being promoted to Double-A Akron last week.

Report: Padres trade Matt Kemp to the Braves for Hector Olivera

SAN DIEGO, CA - JUNE 06:  Matt Kemp #27 of the San Diego Padres talks in the dugout prior to the start of the game against the Atlanta Braves at PETCO Park on June 6, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Kent Horner/Getty Images)
Kent Horner/Getty Images
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Update (7:01 PM EDT): David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports the deal has been completed.

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ESPN’s Keith Law reported on Saturday evening that a bad contract swap involving the Braves’ Hector Olivera and the Padres’ Matt Kemp was “getting close.” Olivera has been pulled off the field, per Bob Nightengale of USA TODAY. Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports that only a last-second medical would kill the deal at this point, and that the Padres will be sending money to the Braves.

Kemp, 31, will have $64.5 million remaining on his contract through 2019 after this season, but the Dodgers will pay $3.5 million annually over those remaining three years, so the $64.5 million is really $54 million. The veteran has compiled a .262/.285/.489 triple-slash line with 23 home runs and 69 RBI in 431 plate appearances for the Padres this season.

Olivera, 31, will have $28.5 million remaining on his contract through 2020 after this season. The outfielder was handed an 82-game suspension, beginning on May 26, for his involvement in a domestic dispute on April 13. The suspension is up on August 2. He has a .501 OPS in 21 major league at-bats this season and a .278 OPS in 37 PA at Triple-A.

Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune reports that the Padres will consider designating Olivera for assignment. The trade is all about the salary dump for the Padres, as they’d rather give outfield playing time to prospects Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot.