Mark Prior to Reds: Oft-Injured SP's Comeback Will Once Again Prove Futile

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Mark Prior to Reds: Oft-Injured SP's Comeback Will Once Again Prove Futile
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Mark Prior comeback trail simply will not stop. In a deal that was first reported by MLB.com's Mark Sheldon, the Cincinnati Reds signed Prior to a minor-league contract on Friday:

Prior will immediately report to the team's spring training and from there will attempt to make the big league roster. This will be the fourth consecutive spring that the 32-year-old has tried to make a comeback in spring training. 

Prior's signing in Cincinnati reunites Reds manager Dusty Baker with his former protege. Baker was Prior's skipper for four seasons with the Chicago Cubs, most notably during the pitcher's brilliant 2003 season. Prior finished that campaign with an 18-6 record, 2.43 ERA, 7.2 WAR and finished third place in the Cy Young voting.

Baker spoke about the process of bringing back his former ace on Thursday with the Associated Press (h/t Yahoo! Sports):

He called me in the winter. We talk sometimes. He sends my wife updates on the kids. He never asked me for anything. He said, 'Hey man, I'd like to try it one more time.' I told him, 'If I can help you, I'll make the opportunity.'

While the player and manager undoubtedly have fond memories, the Cy Young version of Prior isn't walking through that spring training door. Prior has not played in the major leagues since 2006 after going through a half-decade's worth of debilitating shoulder problems. 

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps "problems" is putting it mildly. Prior essentially had the bubonic plague in his right shoulder. He has undergone no fewer than three major shoulder surgeries and did not pitch competitively for four full calendar years from July 2006 to August 2010 while recovering from the procedures.

Since returning to the mound in 2010, Prior has been on an Everest-sized quest to make it back to the big leagues. Working mostly as a middle and long reliever, Prior's journey started in the independent leagues before spending 2011 with the Yankees organization and 2012 with the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston's AAA affiliate. 

In Pawtucket, Prior saw his most extensive in-game work since the injury problems started. He appeared in 25 games, finishing 1-0 with a 3.96 ERA and 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Though those are solid numbers, he struggled with control, averaging 8.3 walks per nine innings, which resulted in a 1.52 WHIP.

In all likelihood, this will be a short-term relationship. Sheldon noted that Prior's contract did not even include a major league camp invitation, and the Reds have little need for a long reliever at this juncture.

Cincinnati is going through an adjustment with Aroldis Chapman moving to the starting rotation and Jonathan Broxton taking over as closer. Nevertheless, the team returns nearly every other player from its league-leading bullpen last season.

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And it's not like Prior's skill set is going to scream "major league ready." He was fine in Pawtucket last season, but nowhere near good enough to earn a trip back to the big leagues. His control was not there, and neither his fastball nor his curveball is good enough to be plus pitches anymore. 

That's understandable. Prior is 32, has gone through multiple surgeries and is nearly seven full calendar years removed from his last time on a major league mound.  He will continue to battle his way and attempt to make a lasting impression, but as he ages, the chance of that happening decreases exponentially. 

For the Reds, taking a chance on Prior represents a move with literally no risk.  It's a nice story for Prior and Baker to get back together. But that's likely all it will be. Signing Prior creates some headlines and makes people wonder what could have been of his potentially brilliant career.

It's the baseball equivalent of an NBA team signing Greg Oden—if only Oden were 32 years old and seven years instead of three removed from his sport. 

Everyone wants a happy ending to this story. For Prior to make a comeback and help the Reds win the NL Central and maybe a pennant. Unfortunately, this isn't a sports movie; it's real life. And the hard truth of the matter is Prior will spend his season languishing in the minors or the two sides will mutually part ways at the end of the spring.

As for Prior, he'll likely be left wondering "what if" just as often as fans do. 

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