Prior aims to show Reds he's big league material
Righty was an All-Star at 22, but hasn't pitched in Majors since '06 due to injuries
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Simply trying to show the Reds that he can again be a normal and functional pitcher this spring, Mark Prior realizes his career arc has been anything but normal.
"I went the reverse bell curve," Prior said.
Prior was 22-years-old when he zipped to fast fame with the Cubs 10 years ago. Shoulder surgery derailed his career after the 2006 season, and he hasn't pitched in a regular season Major League game since.
After Prior reached out to his old manager, Dusty Baker, the Reds signed him on March 1 and assigned him to the Minor League camp. In a cameo for the big league team on Thursday vs. the A's, Prior pitched one scoreless inning with one strikeout and one hit batsman.
Of the 20 pitches Prior threw, 12 were strikes. It was the first time he faced big league hitters since he was in Yankees camp two years ago.
"You still want to know, 'Does your stuff still play?'" Prior said. "You're facing Triple-A guys the last couple of days in Minor League camp and last year in Pawtucket. It's always nice to get out there and see the big league guys' swings off of what your stuff is to kind of get a gauge of where you're at."
Oakland gave Prior a good test as he drew the heart of the batting order in the top of the sixth inning. He got No. 3 hitter Josh Reddick to hit a 2-2 pitch for a routine fly to left field. Seth Smith grounded out to the shortstop, also in a 2-2 count. Chris Young had a 2-1 count when Prior hit him in the back with a pitch.
Finally, he struck out Derek Norris with five pitches on a foul tip.
"I was trying to throw strikes. I was a little up, a little rushed probably on 50 percent of the pitches," Prior said. "But overall, for the first time of not doing it in a big league environment in a couple of years, it was good.
"Not that these games count, but there is a little more at stake vs. down in the Goodyear on the backfields where you're a little more comfortable."
Just like his years in Chicago, Prior could see Baker waiting in the dugout as he walked off the field when the top of the sixth ended.
"It's been almost eight years. It's good," Prior said. "Dusty and I have always remained in contact about twice a year. We're always pulling for each other. I'm here because of him and the opportunity he was able to provide. Hopefully, I can thank him by going out and performing and maybe surprising some people and doing something."
Baker enjoyed getting to shake hands with Prior once his outing was complete.
"It was nice for me, too," Baker said. "He threw the ball good. He's not far off from where he was before. He had good zip on it. He still has to get a feel for his breaking ball, but I think that will come with time. He hasn't been here that long. I'm pleased with what I saw. I'm glad for him."
The No. 2 overall Draft pick by the Cubs in 2001, Prior was an All-Star by 2003 as he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 30 starts. The injuries started the following season, but it was the reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule that proved the toughest to overcome.
But maybe not impossible.
Over the past four years, Prior has tried to keep his comeback going as a reliever in the Padres, Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox organizations. He's pitched in independent ball as well. Each stop has left him short of his goal of reaching the big leagues, often because of setbacks.
Therefore, Prior can't get too far ahead of himself wondering when he might get a big league callup to the Reds.
"The first question is always health and, 'Can I be durable? Can I stay healthy?' I'm sure I need to answer a lot of those questions for everybody," Prior said. "And then if that question is answered, it's, 'How are you pitching?' The ultimate goal is to win ballgames at the big league level. They're not going to take anybody. They want guys that are helping them if there's a need or somebody is pitching better. I just want to go out there and show that I can stay healthy and be a reliable reliever. If I can do that, I will either help in Louisville or help in Cincinnati -- one or the other."
Last season at Triple-A Pawtucket, Prior had a 3.96 ERA in 19 relief appearances. He's appeared in two Triple-A games for the Reds this spring.
As far as Prior is concerned, he will keep pitching until the opportunities run dry or he's physically incapable of competing.
"I'm pitching. I pitched last year. I just want to go play and see what happens," Prior said. "I've done the work I've needed to do to get myself in this position. I'm fortunate again to have the opportunity again to be in this position. We'll kind of see what happens. I don't try to get too far in advance of what might happen. For me, it's day-to-day. Today was a good day. We'll go back to work tomorrow."