In this week’s edition of TWiCH, we look back at what could have been for one of the most promising young pitchers in Cubs history. Mark Prior made his MLB debut on May 22, 2002 after only nine minor league starts, less than a year after being drafted second overall by the Chicago Cubs the previous June.
Prior won three separate player of the year awards — Golden Spikes Award, Dick Howser Trophy, and Rotary Smith Award — in his final year with the USC Trojans and was considered the top pitcher in the draft. Prior’s numbers in his two seasons at USC were incredible, as he finished with a 15-1 record, 1.70 ERA, and over 200 strikeouts with only 18 walks.
After logging only 51 innings between nine AA and AAA starts, the Cubs called Prior for his big league debut against the Pittsburgh Pirates. That first start began with a leadoff single to center and Prior started the 2nd inning with a walk and a hit batter. Two batters later, Prior gave up his first run on a base hit. After that, however, he shook off the nerves and settled in.
Prior finished the afternoon with 10 strikeouts, becoming the first Cubs pitcher since 1969 to accomplish that feat in his first start. He went six innings, giving up two runs on four hits and two walks. He had plenty of run support, led by Fred McGriff’s two-RBI day and a Sammy Sosa homer in the 3rd. The Cubs went on to beat the Pirates 7-4.
Prior finished the 2002 season with a 6-6 record, 3.32 ERA, and 147 strikeouts. That set the stage for a sophomore season that would be his best year and set up expectations that would never be fulfilled. In 2003, Prior posted an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA, and a 245/50 K/BB ratio, earning him an All-Star nod and a third-place finish in the NL Cy Young race. The one-two punch of Kerry Wood and Prior in 2003 led the Cubs to 88 wins and a division title.
From that point forward, Prior’s career was plagued by serious injuries, the first of which came in 2004 when he missed the first two months of the season with an Achilles injury. Prior missed most of the 2005 season after a comebacker fractured his right elbow. Still only 25 years old, he began the 2006 season on the DL with a strained shoulder and started only nine games.
In 2007, after just one start in the minors, Prior had shoulder surgery and was shut down for the season. His tenure with Cubs ended in December of that year. Prior would not pitch again professionally until 2010, bouncing around between several levels of the minors and independent leagues with four different organizations.
He eventually retired in 2013 at age 32 without returning to the majors, his lasting legacy a question of what might have been. It almost hurts to think about just how good he was and how short a time Cubs fans really got to enjoy his talent.