His tenure with the Pawtucket Red Sox may have ended in a less-than-desirable fashion, yet make no mistake: Mark Prior remains as determined as ever to refute the industry bias surrounding him by pitching again in a major-league setting.
Reached earlier this week at his San Diego residence, Prior expressed confidence that there figures to be a team out there willing to take a flyer on him for 2013. When exactly that next opportunity arises has an aura of mystery surrounding it, hence why Prior – slated to turn 32 on Sept. 7 – feels it behooves him to continue throwing bullpens with California’s blue sky serving as the backdrop.
“I want to play and I’m going to try to play next year,” Prior expressed during a wide-ranging 15-minute interview that touched upon his time in Pawtucket and why there’s still a great amount of intrigue surrounding him despite there being almost a decade elapsing from when he was earmarked as “The Next Great American Pitcher” while with the Chicago Cubs. “Hopefully I’ve shown enough to people to at least give me an opportunity to go into spring training and fight for a job. How I get to that point is kind of a big question mark right now.”
Prior’s time with the PawSox officially ended the night of Aug. 16 when skipper Arnie Beyeler summoned him into the manager’s McCoy Stadium office. Generally, the rule of thumb is that whenever a pitcher of Prior’s veteran pedigree is faced with the realization that Triple A is the highest ceiling he can reach in a particular organization, he may feel compelled to ask for his release in order to see what other opportunities exist – regardless if there’s two weeks or two months remaining in the season.
In Prior’s case, it was the Red Sox who were informing him that his time was up and that his roster spot on the PawSox was needed for someone viewed as a more viable piece to the equation. Turns out that “piece” was Pedro Beato, a reliever acquired in the Kelly Shoppach deal with the New York Mets.
“From the explanation I got from Arnie and (Pawtucket pitching coach) Rich (Sauveur) and a couple of other people in the organization, between the time of the year and the needs of the big-league club, they needed to make some room for guys who were coming in so they could evaluate them at that level,” explained Prior, who joined the PawSox on June 1. “(Getting released) was a surprise, but I totally understand where they’re coming from.”
For arguably the first time since his days as a bona fide Cy Young candidate with the Cubs, Prior’s ending with a team was not the result of elbow or shoulder woes – two ailments that have served as the main culprits as to why he hasn’t thrown a big-league pitch since 2006. With Pawtucket, he walked 23 batters in 25 innings, a high sum that, in the eyes of some Red Sox officials, must have offset the fact that he also struck out 38 over that same span.
“Being let go for something that wasn’t a health reason … obviously, one of my goals was to get through the year healthy and I was able to do that,” Prior said. “That’s a credit to the program that (PawSox trainer Jon) Jochim, the training staff, and the Red Sox put together for me.
“I’m still learning the transition of being a reliever and how to get my work in and prepare for games,” added Prior about the nuances surrounding his starter-turned-bullpen-arm transformation. “With the Cubs and Padres, I wasn’t able to get off the ground. Last year with the Yankees, I thought I had a great camp, and to come up with the hip and groin injury 10 days into the season, it was something that left a bitter taste. That’s why I wanted to come back and give it another shot.”
Prior addressed the bump he ran into while the property of the PawSox, an oblique strain that resulted in a trip to the disabled list in late June and still nagged him upon returning to the mound. Dating back to his final 10 appearances that covered 14 2/3 frames, Prior issued 13 walks. He did, however, hold International League hitters to a .189 average during those 10 games, a paltry sum that suggests that even though Prior’s fastball generally resided in the low 90s, he was still able to induce outs.
“For me, to be honest with myself, I came out of extended spring training and came up to Triple A and felt like I was starting to get into a groove,” said Prior. “After the oblique, I wasn’t able to find that right rhythm. Things just didn’t click as well prior to the injury for whatever reason. Maybe it was the time off or I was subconsciously protecting it early on and that led to some bad habits.
“More than anything, the issue was that I wasn’t being aggressive in the zone and trying to nitpick and pitch on the corners,” was the critique Prior offered. “Throughout my career and early in my time in Pawtucket, I was challenging guys and seeing what would happen in reacting to those situations. Instead, I fell behind in counts and started pitching away from contact. You’re not going to succeed that way.
“Do I throw 93-95 anymore? No, but whatever deception I have, guys don’t seem to pick up my ball and you just play off that,” continued Prior, such a declaration backed by the .172 batting mark he limited foes to in 19 appearances with Pawtucket. “I know I can pitch and battle. For me, it’s about getting everything in line so I can come into spring training and just compete and not worry about mechanics or whether I’m healthy. Every player wants to go out there with a clear head and just compete. Wherever the chips fall, they fall.”
Upon learning his fate with Pawtucket, Prior drove to New Jersey to spend time with family before flying home to the West Coast. The long-leaned pitcher remains vigilant when it comes to throwing, his memory drifting back to when the Texas Rangers signed him to a minor-league deal in Sept. 2010.
“I’m still working on some things that I was trying to work on during the last week to 10 days with Rich (Sauveur),” said Prior. “The deal with the Rangers was that they had brought up a lot of their Triple-A guys as September callups. (Oklahoma City, Texas’ Class AAA outfit) was in the playoffs and kind of needed some guys to fill in. If that situation arises again, I’ll likely jump on it, even if it’s for a couple of outings. You take the opportunities where you can get them.”
If nothing else materializes between now and the close of the season, Prior will once again lay his feet at the mercy of the open market that will dictate whether teams remain interested. Whether it’s serving as a back-of-the-rotation piece or as a short- or long-relief man, Prior expressed confidence that he holds plenty of value.
“At this stage, any opportunity is a good opportunity. I know the position I’m in at this point in my career and that’s fine,” he stated. “You have to let your stuff dictate what happens.”
Prior let out a slight chuckle when asked about the New York Times coming to Pawtucket to do a story on him, a sort of “Where are they now?” piece that re-affirms that time has not diminished the memory that some people still have of him.
“If I stayed on the path this year, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened,” he said. “I appreciate all the fanfare, and my family really enjoyed the time we spent in Pawtucket and Providence. I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed playing this season there and I think a lot of it is because I’ve been away from the game. I’ve seen what it’s like to be at the top and seen what it’s like to be out of it [Note: Prior toiled in the Independent League circuit for a few seasons] and I really appreciated going to the ballpark every day and playing before 8,500-9,000 fans.
“I would have loved to have ended up in Boston, or at a minimum, finish the year out and go to the playoffs (with Pawtucket),” Prior added, “but overall, it was a positive year.”