By now you probably know that the Padres have inked Mark Prior to a one year, $1 million contract (with $4.5m in incentives).
Going into the 2004 season, Mark Prior probably had the best forecast for any pitcher in the game. He was 23 years old. The scouts loved him. He was putting up great numbers. Great stuff: check. Mechanics: check. Size … check.
And look at what has happened. Prior’s career shows exactly why people are so cautious when forecasting pitchers (even the very best ones). Since 2004, he’s averaged just 82.3 innings a year with a 4.27 ERA. Depending on how you want to define it (I’ll say 1 run higher than b-ref’s average here), he has been about 37 runs above replacement level over the last 4 years. And he’s actually only pitched 43.7 innings in the last two years with well below replacement level performance in those innings.
That is, I guess, the bad news. The good news is that he is still technically Mark Prior (at least sort of). He’s only 27 years old and he’s bound to run into some healthy seasons here or there. As I mentioned in a post on Matt Clement, scouting will certainly play a large role in any projection of Prior. If he truly is that same Mark Prior, then he outlook will probably still be pretty bright. If he’s a different pitcher with different mechanics, stuff, endurance, etc. then it will have to be substantially lowered (and this is very likely the case).
The other good news is that $1 m is literally nothing in this market. There is very little risk in this move and there is a pretty large reward (that is somewhat tampered by the incentives). I don’t think there’s any way I can look at this move and be disappointed. The commitment money-wise is simply too small. If Prior doesn’t step on the mound in 2008, which is probably a distinct possibility, the damage is limited by the low risk contract. If he gives you 80-100 average(ish) innings, you make out pretty well. Considering his name and the fact that he was a free agent, I see it as a bargain.
The fact that it is a bargain (at least, imo) doesn’t mean that the Padres are set with the rotation. Despite the fact that Prior’s contract is low-risk, Prior himself is still an incredible risk to be able to handle the 5th spot in the rotation for any length of time. If the Padres are expecting 100+ innings out of him, they may very well might be disappointed. I mean it may happen, but there’s also a decent chance that he only gives you 50 innings, or 15. All of the sudden, the 5th spot may put up a 5 ERA between Prior, Hensley, Rusch, etc. If someone like Young or Wolf (another huge injury risk) goes down, now you’re looking at a much more average rotation.
I think the Padres will still be in the market for another pitcher. Still, this is another nice move. Which Mark Prior will show up in San Diego …? Well, you know the cliche. That’s why you ask for MLB Extra Innings for Christmas.