Prior once as highly touted as Strasburg
Former top pitching prospect working way back to Majors
Mark Prior has never met Stephen Strasburg, but there is no one on the planet who has a better idea of what the highly publicized pitcher for the Washington Nationals is now facing.
Eight years ago, Prior was Strasburg.
Prior was the pitcher fresh off of a remarkable collegiate career who had signed a record-setting contract for $10.5 million.
He was the pitcher who was going to change the destiny of his new team, the Chicago Cubs.
He drew the raves of general managers and scouts.
"He might be the finest young arm we've seen come out of the Draft in a long time," said San Diego general manager Kevin Towers.
"You just don't see players like that," said Cubs scouting director John Stockstill.
That was the picture in 2001. Prior was a young man out of San Diego who had established his credentials pitching for USC.
Just this week, Strasburg upped the financial bar for an amateur player when he wiped away Prior's figure by signing a guaranteed contract for $15 million with the Nationals.
If the raves about Strasburg's ability are greater than those directed at Prior, it's only because there is more media now covering baseball.
The expectations of Strasburg are the same as those that were carried by Prior -- plus the attention and the dollars.
There is a touch of irony in that, as the Nationals and the media focused on the negotiations with Strasburg this month, there was a transaction in early August that gained little, if any, attention: Prior was released by the Padres.
At the age of 28, Prior was out of professional baseball.
If you think there is a sense of bitterness that occupies the thoughts of Prior, you haven't had the opportunity to talk to him.
"First of all, I haven't given up on my career, by any means," said Prior from his home in San Diego. "I had a setback with my shoulder in May and I totally understand why the Padres decided to release me, because they knew I couldn't pitch this season.
"I have nothing but respect for the way the Padres, Kevin Towers and Buddy Black and the Padres staff dealt with me. The team cares about its players and does a great job in dealing with the players."
Prior said time away from a team environment has given him time to reflect on his career, adding, "I also couldn't help but be aware of all that has been happening with Strasburg in that I live in San Diego."
Prior knows the road for Strasburg is going to be one that requires a player to move at full speed.
In 2002, his first full professional season, Prior reached the Major Leagues in May after just nine Minor League starts. He overmatched hitters at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels and then went 6-6 with the Cubs in 19 starts, with 147 strikeouts and only 38 walks in 116 2/3 innings while compiling a 3.32 ERA.
The "savior" for the Cubs had arrived at Wrigley Field.
In 2003, Prior was selected to the National League All-Star team in his first full season in the Majors and posted a record of 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA. He finished third in the NL Cy Young Award voting.
There was a shoulder injury as the result of a baserunning collision in that season that sent Prior to the disabled list. It was the start of a series of injuries, and later two shoulder surgeries, that led to an end to Prior's career with the Cubs after the 2006 season.
"I look back and I don't have regrets, because I know I always gave the best of what I had to give. In 2003, we had a chance to be in postseason play and I think that helped to change the mind-set of the Cub franchise," said Prior.
"I realize there has been a lot of attention on the high number of pitch counts when I was with the Cubs, but I don't sit and wonder about all of that. Pitching is a fragile business and you can't point to any one thing related to a career," added Prior.
Are there suggestions for Strasburg?
"Not really," Prior said, "except to enjoy the journey and the great game where we are fortunate to be involved.
"I imagine Strasburg will have great success in the Minor Leagues and he will travel fast to the top level. That's the nature of the business."
For Prior, his focus today is more on pitchers like Pedro Martinez of Philadelphia and Chris Carpenter of St. Louis than Strasburg.
"I see how Pedro and Chris have battled back from injuries and I respect what they have done," Prior said. "It also gives me hope.
"I will do everything I can to prepare myself to pitch in the Major Leagues again. I know I have the ability and I haven't given up on myself in any way."
At the age of 28, Prior is at a stage when many pitchers haven't reached their prime.
Prior has both time and determination on his side.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as Executive Vice President and general manager. His book, "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue," was published by SportsPublishing LLC. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.