Over the last ten days, rumors from several credible media outlets (and ESPN 1000’s Bruce Levine) had Mark Prior packing his bags for Baltimore in exchange for Miguel Tejada. That wasn’t the entire package. Rich Hill, Erik Bedard, Corey Patterson, and Todd Walker were mentioned as add-ons. But essentially the Cubs were considering a trade that would send Mark Prior to the Orioles for Miguel Tejada. When I first heard the rumor, I assumed it was another one of those "blockbuster trades" that neither side actually proposed. In a day or so, Jim Hendry would release a statement that the Cubs were not interested in trading Mark Prior, and that would be that. During the winter meetings in Texas, a rumor about Mark Prior for Bobby Abreu surfaced, and an article was on the front page of Cubs.com almost instantly. "The Cubs will not trade Mark Prior."
Days went by, and the assurance from Cubs management never came. That’s when I got worried. ESPN began running segments on Sportscenter about the proposed trade. It was actually on CNN Headline Sports one afternoon. That’s when I really got worried.
In 2003, Prior’s first full year in the majors, he nearly won the Cy Young Award. Prior went 18-6, finishing third in the Cy Young voting to Eric Gagne and Jason Schmidt. Sabrmetricians would tell you that wins are overrated, and I guess that’s probably true. Jeff Suppan and Kenny Rogers prove that theory. But Prior’s peripheral stats were just as impressive. In 2003, Mark Prior started 30 games (and finished three of them), compiling a 2.43 ERA. He recorded 245 strikeouts in 211.1 innings, walking only 50 batters. His WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) was 1.10. And, most importantly, he finished the regular season 10-1 with a sub-2.00 ERA, guiding the Cubs to the NL Central title. He won the first game of that doubleheader against the Pirates, the one that made Clement’s victory in the nightcap meaningful. He shut down the Braves in the NLDS, going the distance against the best offense in the national league. He beat the Marlins in his first start of the NLCS. And, because it’s still too soon to talk about, we’ll stop there. You can turn on ESPN Classic if you want to know what happened next.
One year later, the Cubs were trying to bounce back from one of the most crippling post-season collapses in recent history, and Mark Prior was nursing his injured achilles tendon in Lansing. Prior’s sore ankle kept him out until June. Despite never being able to round into form, he still pitched a few great games. In his final start of the 2004 season, as the Cubs were taking their all-too-familiar face plant, Mark Prior struck out 16 Cincinnati Reds. He gave up one solo home run, two singles, and a walk over nine innings. Unfortunately, the Cubs refused Mark’s help, only scoring a run of their own and dropping the game in 2-1 in extra innings. But as depressing as the last month of the 2004 season was, it was a good omen that Mark Prior was finally healthy again. If he and Kerry Wood could only stay healthy in 2005….
When that line drive hit Mark Prior’s elbow in May of 2005, he was 4-1 with a 2.93 ERA. He should have been at least 7-1 at that point, if not for the Cubs’ lack of offensive production and the cancer that was Cubs’ closer LaTroy Hawkins. In his first start after the injury, he shut down the eventual World Series Champion White Sox, giving up one hit over six innings and striking out three with no walks. Unfortunately, he was never able to get back into his early season groove, and he finished the year 11-7 with a 3.67 ERA.
Where am I going with all of this? I’m not sure. But here’s three things I do know:
1. The last time the Cubs had someone this gifted in their rotation, he left for Atlanta. Then the Cubs got him back, when he was 70 years old and past his prime. This does not need to happen again.
2. I have a pretty expensive authentic #22 home jersey in my closet that may soon become obsolete.
3. You can’t trade Mark Prior. Not for anybody. When healthy, he’s one of the five best pitchers in baseball. Assuming he doesn’t get hit with anymore liners or all-star second basemen, Mark Prior will pitch well enough this season to compensate for the lack of power in the offense every fifth day. Carlos Zambrano will do the same. And, God willing, Kerry Wood will last through June. With those three frontline pitchers along with Maddux and Williams, the Cubs can compete in their division. Without Mark Prior, Babe Ruth in his prime couldn’t carry the Cubs in 2006. Why would Tejada be able to?
Like it or not, the Cubs are stuck with Mark Prior. And Mark Prior is stuck with the Cubs (at least until the end of 2008). And the sooner everyone learns to accepts that, the happier we’ll all be. There are worse players you could be stuck with. If the Cubs really want to give someone to the Orioles, how about Corey Patterson? He’s terrible, and the Orioles seem to put a premium on mediocre Cubs outfielders.
The next time the Cubs whiff on a big free agent signing (Furcal), they need to take a deep breath, count to 10, and come up with a rational Plan B.