MESA, Arizona -- It wasn't so very long ago -- about three and a half years -- that Mark Prior stood on the mound at Wrigley Field, about to be the hero as the Cubs were five damned outs away from the Promised Land.
Well, we all know what happened then. No need to belabor it, but this morning in Mesa, Arizona, many miles, many years, and much water under the bridge from that October day, Mark Prior stood on a mound at Fitch Park in front of about fifty fans and reporters and Cubs brass, trying to figure out what went wrong, bringing him to the point at which his career might hinge.
I'm here to tell you it's unhinged. Prior threw four innings, fifty-nine pitches (only a little more than half of them, thirty-two, were strikes). He walked two, hit a batter, was constantly behind hitters, gave up two hits and no runs to a team consisting of players who will wind up spending this year playing for Tennessee and Daytona (some names I recognized: Dopirak, Fontenot, Spears, Simokaitis). The outs were hit fairly hard, and it was just not very impressive. There weren't any scouts with radar guns -- just one of the Cubs' minor leaguers behind the plate with one. I was able to see it while Jason Marquis (who was the opposing pitcher; he went today in this game because the Cubs wanted Angel Guzman to face the White Sox) was on the mound; Marquis was consistently at 90.
But while Prior was throwing, this player (who I couldn't identify; he was wearing warmups) hid the gun so no one but him could see it. It didn't matter. It was easy to see that Marquis' fastball was popping into the catcher's glove; Prior's wasn't. Prior seemed to be dropping down his arm again -- that's a sign of something wrong, even though he and everyone else denies it.
But most importantly, the guy who used to look like he was on top of the baseball world had absolutely no mound presence. Constantly wiping his face (it wasn't that hot at 8:30 in the morning!), scuffling around, he looked as if he'd rather have been just about anywhere else in the world than on that pitcher's mound.
Do I think he's done? No, but he is absolutely not ready to pitch in the major leagues at this time. I doubt he'll see the Ho Ho Kam Park mound again this spring; likely, he'll be placed on the DL (they'll either have to invent an injury, if he's healthy, or own up to one, if he's not) and keep him at extended spring training, and then they'll have to make a decision, to either get him to Iowa to throw, or let him go. And given the money and the time invested in Prior by the Cubs, I think they will go a very long time before they will simply release him -- whether that's the right call or not.
It's a shame. Here's a guy who was called "the greatest college pitcher ever", compared to Tom Seaver, and dominant in the National League in his first full season in 2003. Now he's barely hanging on to his baseball life.
You'll like this. I was talking to Bruce Miles while we were watching Prior throw, and I casually mentioned, without making an accusation, the difference in the size of Prior's calves (remember "Calfzilla"?) when he first came up, compared to now -- they look almost sticklike. Guess who, standing right next to me, rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, come on!"?? That's right, Carrie Muskat. Draw your own conclusions.
After four innings (Marquis threw five, and looked very sharp -- 68 pitches, 45 strikes, and had hitters beating the ball into the ground), Prior had a brief conference with Larry Rothschild, who then looked up at the "guard tower" that's in the middle of the four fields at Fitch Park toward Jim Hendry, who yelled down, "I'll pick you up at Ho Ho at 10!" Yes, that's right -- he actually said "Ho Ho". In addition to Hendry, Oneri Fleita and John McDonough were up in the tower watching Prior.
So that's what I saw this morning. This afternoon, I have the choice of sitting by the pool or sitting inside watching the game... hmmmm.... well, I think I will try to catch at least a bit of Angel Guzman's outing. It does appear that Guzman's the front-runner for the fifth rotation spot, especially if he does well today.
Finally, I learned today that my friend Kevin Ciarrachi, trying to make Double-A as a backup catcher, was released by the Cubs, likely ending his professional baseball career. That's a shame too, because I know how hard Kevin has worked trying to rehab injuries and make a baseball career for himself. I wish him all the best.
Discuss amongst yourselves. Finally, here are some photos I took of Prior and Marquis this morning:
(as always, click on thumbnail to view full-size in new browser window. If you are using IE, you may have to click the lower-right corner of the image in the new window to expand it to its full size; in Firefox click anywhere on the image. Photos by Al)