Reds give Prior another shot at big league return
Baker helps his former phenom join Cincinnati, sign Minor League deal
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Former Cubs pitcher Mark Prior was willing to exhaust any and all avenues to continue a long and arduous comeback from shoulder surgery. Recently, that included placing a phone call to his former manager, Dusty Baker, to ask for a chance.
Prior's wish was granted Friday when he passed a physical and signed a Minor League contract with the Reds. The deal did not include an invite to big league camp and the 32-year-old right-hander reported to Spring Training with the much younger Reds Minor League pitchers and catchers.
"It's always good to be affiliated with somebody, no matter if the status is Major or Minor League," Prior told MLB.com. "I have to prove that I can pitch and win a job. I know the road ahead of me, but it's an opportunity. You don't know how many more you're going to get. "
Prior has not pitched in the Majors since 2006 and had reconstructive shoulder surgery in '07. He did not throw a baseball competitively for the next three years.
The last three seasons have been spent pitching in the Minors or independent leagues, including in the Rangers, Yankees and Red Sox organizations. Last season at Triple-A Pawtucket, Prior had a 3.96 ERA in 19 relief appearances.
"I don't necessarily feel like a martyr or something because I've worked hard and I should be paid with an opportunity, but I'm grateful for it," Prior said. "I don't take it for granted. I'll do everything I can to go out and perform and try for a spot. I enjoy competing, first and foremost. It's always a joy to go out and compete. I'm going to take it day by day. I know that's a cliche, but it's literal for me. I really do have to take it day by day. I was in San Diego without a job on Tuesday and I'm here today."
While pitching for Baker on the Cubs in 2003, Prior was a 22-year-old phenom and All Star who went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA in 30 starts and 211 1/3 innings. He also led the Majors in pitch-count average with 113.4 in the regular season and 124.3 in that year's postseason.
Baker is keenly aware of the criticism he's gotten over the years regarding his handling of Prior and accusations of overuse. To put it succinctly, many blame Baker for wrecking Prior's career.
Therefore, Baker expected that Friday's news would be an eyebrow raiser around baseball.
"It's going to open old wounds," Baker said. "I told him, 'You know it's going to cause a big story.' I don't care. It's how I feel about the man."
Some Cubs fans never forgave Baker for what happened to Prior, the No. 2 overall Draft pick in 2001, but a grudge never was held personally by Prior. The two have remained friends over the years as Baker eventually moved on to Cincinnati in '08 and Prior kept rehabilitating.
"I have an open and good relationship with Dusty. I hold no ill will against him," Prior said. "By no means do I think it was his fault with how my career has gone. It's no one's fault. I had a good career, I've enjoyed my time playing baseball, I don't feel like I'm done and I still feel like I can make a difference.
"Things happened under his watch that he probably gets unfairly blamed for, like any manager. For me, he's managing his big league team, I'm down here in the Minor Leagues, just working my way, and if I get called up, great. I enjoyed my time with him in Chicago and I'm sure I'd enjoy my time with him now. It's been 10 years and I don't dwell on all that. It's pointless to. I know it's a big deal to a lot of people, but it's a non-issue for me in so many ways."
The bad luck began in 2004, when Prior was limited to 21 starts because of an Achilles tendon injury and a line drive off of his arm in May 2005 broke his right elbow. A strained shoulder marred much of the '06 season, and left him with a 1-6 record and 7.22 ERA in only nine starts. It was the same season that current Reds reliever Sean Marshall broke in with Chicago.
"That's when he was freshly injured with his shoulder," Marshall said. "I was talking with him today. I hadn't seen him for a couple of years and he's been with a couple of different teams. He's exhausting his opportunities and it's good he's still out there. If he makes it up, it would be good."
In April 2007, Prior had massive reconstructive surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule. Baker always felt the blame on him was unfair.
"There's no manager around that doesn't have somebody that has gotten seriously hurt," Baker said Friday. "The more you manage, the more the chance you have guys [who get hurt]. It's like [the blame that] I got Kerry Wood [hurt]. He had Tommy John [surgery] already and pitched six, seven years after."
Prior and Baker remained in touch with occasional phone calls and their wives also kept in contact via email. Updates about children often came up, but baseball? Not so much.
"He never had asked me for anything," Baker said.
Finally, Prior did ask for a shot with the Reds.
"I said 'I would try to make the opportunity available to you,'" Baker said.
Baker brought up Prior to general manager Walt Jocketty, who approved the signing. The manager has admired Prior's efforts to stay in the game and keep trying.
"If I hadn't, I wouldn't have fought to give him the opportunity," Baker said. "I talked to Walt about it. We discussed it. You know all the stuff is going to come up. Walt had no problem with it and I had no problem with it."
"Hopefully it turns out positive for both sides," Prior said. "They're taking a chance like the Red Sox and Yankees before them took chances. If everything goes well, hopefully it gives them a huge plus. Hopefully I can make it back and do that."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Mark My Word, and follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon. Doug Miller contributed to this article. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.