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Baseball Notes

Prior and Yankees will find out what the righty has left

By Nick Cafardo
February 13, 2011

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There was no doubt what he was going to be: a pitcher with once-in-a-decade, electric stuff. He would be a Roger Clemens or a Pedro Martinez. He would be the next superstar righthander. He would be the next 250- to 300-game winner.

That’s how good Mark Prior was coming out of Southern Cal in 2001. That’s how good he looked after his first two seasons with the Cubs.

He threw nice and easy, almost a perfect delivery, and could reach the upper 90s.

So why a broken elbow, two major shoulder surgeries, six stints on the disabled list? Why did he go from superstar-in-the-making to spending the last four years trying to come back?

Prior went through his “why me?’’ stage, but there really is no answer. Some might blame former managers Don Baylor and Dusty Baker for overextending him as a young pitcher in Chicago, but looking back, how overextended was he?

Prior was dominant. His strikeout totals were off the charts. He fanned 245 in 211 1/3 innings in 2003, going 18-6. He had shut out the Marlins, 3-0, through seven innings of Game 6 in the NLCS and was two innings away from securing the Cubs a berth in the World Series. Then the Marlins struck for eight runs against Prior, Kyle Farnsworth, and Mike Remlinger to tie the series, and then won Game 7.

Now, at the still-young age of 30, Prior is putting everything back on the line. He’s attempting a comeback with the Yankees, the team that drafted him out of high school, hoping to take a path resembling that of former Cubs teammate Kerry Wood. He’s trying to make it as a reliever.

“I have no idea where this is going or what will happen,’’ said Prior. “I just know that I feel I’m ready to give this a try again. I’m excited again. I’m nervous. I have every emotion rolled into one.

“There were times I didn’t think I’d ever get to this point, but I feel after pitching some independent ball last season that I can still get hitters out. So we’re going to put that to the test.’’

The fastball of 98-100 miles per hour is now at 90-92. He’s still a two-pitch pitcher, and the curveball is still impressive, but now the difference between the breaking pitch and the fastball is far less.

“I think I can pitch in the majors with what I have because I can get hitters out,’’ Prior said. “Even I’m wondering, as I start to throw more, whether I’ll pick up more velocity.

“I’m stepping into an interesting situation with the Yankees, a very high-profile team, but I’m looking forward to working with Mariano Rivera. What better person to watch and learn from if you’re someone in my situation?’’

Prior was Stephen Strasburg before Stephen Strasburg. They even both hailed from the San Diego area.

“I think, given that I was 10 years earlier than Strasburg, he got a lot more media attention than I did,’’ Prior said. “I was very impressed with the way he handled things and how he went out there and was able to shut everything off. It’s unfortunate he got hurt so soon, and I guess that’s where the comparisons come into play.’’

Prior had to want this badly to go through so many rehabs.

“I just don’t want to have any regrets,’’ said Prior, who could be playing for Yankees manager Joe Girardi, his former catcher in Chicago, and pitching coach Larry Rothschild, his former pitching coach in Chicago.

“I can see if I have anything to offer, and that probably won’t be my decision.

“There were times I questioned myself and asked the tough question of whether I really wanted to put myself through this and keep at it. And, believe me, after a lot of introspection, I decided that I needed to make sure for my own peace of mind.

“In this role as a reliever, I’m really going to go through things for the first time. Sometimes on the fly. Getting up and down. Warming up to come into a game. I experienced that in independent ball last summer, but this is the majors. I know it’s different.’’

The Yankees, to their credit, followed Prior closely. They watched his rehab. They watched his independent games for the Orange County Flyers last summer (in 11 innings over five weeks, Prior struck out 22, walked five, and allowed one earned run). They watched his one-inning stint in the Rangers farm system and a tryout Prior gave for interested teams in San Diego.

And then they acted.

Prior threw his last pitch in the majors on Aug. 10, 2006, retiring Brewers pitcher Doug Davis on a ground ball to shortstop to end the third inning. The game ended as an 8-6 loss, dropping him to 1-6.

For his career, he is 42-29 with a 3.51 ERA. In 657 innings, he has struck out 757, and he has a career 1.225 WHIP.

“I just can’t look back on what was and what could have been,’’ said Prior. “I think I went through a stage where I did that, and it does no good.

“Looking forward to pitching in the major leagues again. That’s all I ever wanted to do.’’

A CARDINAL CONUNDRUM

Better play on Pujols: payroll hit — or walk?

For many — including some Cardinals fans — it’s as simple as handing over $300 million to Albert Pujols.

But it’s really not so simple.

Pujols, who will become a free agent after this season, may be the best player in the game, and he has put in 10 tremendous seasons. But does he have 8-10 tremendous seasons left in him, at a price that may account for a third of the Cardinals’ payroll?

It’s the old question of, do you pay one player that much and then skimp at other positions?

One solution is to increase payroll, as the Twins did. They knew they’d have to do that to keep Joe Mauer long-term, but they also knew they’d have a lot of new revenue coming in with Target Field.

The Cardinals don’t have that. Their revenue is what their revenue is. They would take a public relations hit if they let a Hall of Famer escape, and it would be a double hit if the Cubs — their biggest rival — ponied up for Pujols.

So what will they do?

“They should stick to a number that makes sense for them, and if it’s not good enough, then you walk away,’’ said a general manager in a larger market. “He may be the brand in St. Louis, but you have to do what’s best for your organization.

“Think of what you could do with that money. Will you ever find a Pujols? No. But you can find 50 percent of him and use the other 50 percent to enhance your team in other areas.

“What will happen is, they’ll get it done. The Cardinals aren’t a small-market team, so they’re in that area where they probably have to do it because not doing it would create chaos and possible loss of revenue. But once in a while, you do something bold and think outside the box.’’

Who’s an adequate replacement? Prince Fielder? His price will likely be in the Adrian Gonzalez range. If Gonzalez gets a Mark Teixeira-type deal (eight years, $180 million), Fielder likely gets the same. That would be a savings for the Cardinals, who would get about two-thirds the player, but also one who is four years younger.

It’s great to have a player like Pujols, but it may be better business to walk away.

ROLLING THE DICE

Familiar names appear on the invitation list

The list of nonroster players invited to major league camps always yields good stories, whether it’s a rehabbing player trying to make it back or an aging veteran trying to earn a spot at the end of a roster. Some wind up being instrumental pieces, such as Joaquin Benoit was to the Rays last season.

This year, the Dodgers have Gabe Kapler in camp, while the Rays are trying to get lucky with veteran reliever Juan Cruz, former All-Star second baseman Felipe Lopez, and first baseman Casey Kotchman. The Blue Jays invited Chad Cordero, who had 47 and 37 saves for the Nationals in 2005 and 2007.

The White Sox have former Angels prospect Dallas McPherson and a walking enigma in Lastings Milledge. The Diamondbacks will take a look at Micah Owings, who will pitch and play first base, Mike Hampton, who never lived up to the eight-year, $121 million contract he signed after the 2000 season with Colorado, and former Red Sox outfielder Wily Mo Pena.

The Phillies are looking at infielder Josh Barfield and former Red Sox farmhand Brandon Moss, as well as 1997 No. 1 overall draft pick Matt Anderson, who once threw 103 m.p.h.

Thirty-nine-year-old catcher Gregg Zaun is trying to come back from an injury with the Padres, and the Indians have invited a former A’s No. 1 pick, outfielder Travis Buck, to camp.

The Yankees are taking a look at former A’s standout Eric Chavez, a six-time Gold Glove winner who could spell Alex Rodriguez at third and DH. The Yankees also brought in once-prominent pitchers Freddy Garcia and Bartolo Colon, and second baseman Ronnie Belliard.

The Orioles have an interesting list, including former Red Sox infielder Nick Green, former Twins infielder Brendan Harris, tall lefty Mark Hendrickson, and former Giants, Mariners, and Yankees outfielder Randy Winn. The Nationals have a few ex-Red Sox in Matt Stairs, Alex Cora, Cla Meredith, and Jonathan Van Every.

As one general manager said, “Sometimes you just need camp depth, and along the way you can get lucky.’’

Etc.
Apropos of nothing 1. As Jonathan Papelbon was showing off his new truck lights to Daniel Bard and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the clubhouse dog, Brewzer, wasn’t impressed; he lifted his leg and relieved himself on the right front tire; 2. A Red Sox sleeper? Alfredo Aceves and Rich Hill might be good choices; 3. Sox second base prospect Oscar Tejeda is a good-looking hitter; 4. I, for one, love Brian Cashman’s outspokenness and honesty; 5. Lenny DiNardo looks like a linebacker.

Updates on nine 1. Pedro Martinez, RHP, free agent — Those in the know think Martinez would pitch the final couple months of the season “if it’s the right fit,’’ as an American League general manager put it. Where that would be is hard to say, but a return to Philadelphia might be an interesting choice if the Phillies move Joe Blanton.

2. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Red Sox — Everyone wants him to be ready by Opening Day, but it seems silly to rush him if he isn’t ready. If that’s the case, the Sox would explore the free agent market for a first baseman. Currently, Nick Johnson, Troy Glaus, Russell Branyan, and Mike Sweeney are on that list. The Sox could also play Lars Anderson for a week or two.

3. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP, free agent — The beat goes on for the 28-year-old, who would seem to be a good tack-on to a rotation. “When I saw him at the end of the season, I thought he was learning to pitch much better than he had,’’ said a National League scout. “He was using his secondary pitches more, really pitching. I’m really surprised a team hasn’t jumped at him, but some of that is up to the player and the agent, too. If he’s asking for too much, nobody’s going to do it no matter how desperate teams are for pitching.’’

4. Francisco Liriano, LHP, Twins — Interesting story by Joe Christensen of the Minneapolis Tribune about the Twins possibly listening to trade offers for their top pitcher. Liriano may be asking for a long-term commitment too rich for Minnesota, and this may be the Twins’ way of luring him back to reality. They would have no shortage of suitors, especially the Yankees, who have the prospects and players to give back.

5. Nick Swisher, OF, Yankees — There’s not a lot of loyalty in baseball, even among players and their agents sometimes. Nobody worked harder for Swisher than Cincinnati-based Joe Bick, but Swisher dumped him and switched to Dan Lozano. Bick had represented Swisher for his entire career, but now Swisher is in a high-profile market, and if he has another good year, he may be able to expand on the five-year, $26.75 million deal that expires after this season. There is a 2012 team option for $10.25 million, which the Yankees can buy out for $1 million.

6. Barry Bonds, retired — The government’s case against Bonds keeps shrinking, as 11 charges against him were reduced to five last week. And it may get smaller. Bonds’s lawyers are trying to get a taped conversation between trainer Greg Anderson and a former business partner of Bonds’s thrown out because Anderson will not corroborate it. Anderson has taken quite a bullet for Bonds, having spent more than a year in prison for refusing to testify. The tape allegedly outlines Bonds’s steroid regimen. Will Bonds get away with everything? Probably not. But if he is found guilty of perjury, he’s probably not going away for long.

7. Michael Young, INF/DH, Rangers — We’ve written a lot about Young and his predicament with the Rangers. While he wants out after the team supplanted him with Adrian Beltre, the options are limited. He might make perfect sense for Oakland, which has the pitching to give back, but the teams are in the same division. The Phillies have kicked the tires, the Dodgers as well, but the best-case scenario for Young may be for a team to suffer an injury at first, third, or DH and come calling.

8. Jarrod Washburn, LHP, free agent — A few GMs we spoke to are under the impression that Washburn would return only if he receives a fairly sizable major league contract. He’s still inclined to stay retired, and if he came back, he would prefer to stay in the Midwest, preferably Milwaukee or Minnesota. He remains an intriguing name.

9. Orlando Cabrera, INF, Cleveland (left) — Signing with the Indians seems odd, since they are not likely to crack the win column often. But every team needs a leader in the middle infield. Cabrera, who has played shortstop but may handle second base for the Tribe, has suited up for a lot of winning teams since 2004 in Boston, but this stop likely will end that trend.

Short hops From the Bill Chuck files: “Who hit the 10 homers Andy Pettitte allowed by the Red Sox? Glad you asked: Jason Varitek hit four, J.D. Drew had three, and David Ortiz, Marco Scutaro, and Jed Lowrie had one apiece.’’ Also, “Jon Lester is scary against the AL East. He is 13-0 against the Orioles (2.33 ERA), 9-3 against Tampa Bay (3.80), 7-4 against the Blue Jays (3.43), and 6-1 against the Yankees (3.28). That’s 35-8 with a 3.19 ERA.’’ And, “Last season, Papelbon had a 2.12 ERA in the 16 games he pitched on no rest, a 5.40 ERA in the 18 games he pitched on one day of rest, and a 7.36 ERA when he pitched on two days’ rest.’’ . . . Lester has lent his name and time to the 2011 Honorary Bat Girl Contest, which honors fans who have been affected by breast cancer. Lester, a lymphoma survivor, will be one of the judges who choose honorary bat girls for the Mother’s Day celebrations at ballparks around the country. Starting tomorrow, you can share your stories and vote for your favorites at honorarybatgirl.com . . . Happy 35th birthday, Brian Rose.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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