Chicago Cubs: Pondering what could have been with Mark Prior and Kerry Wood

(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Banks/Getty Images) /

The careers of former Chicago Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are remembered with a degree of fondness, but mostly with disappointment.

What better way to spend the offseason than by reflecting on the shortcomings of former potential world-beater Chicago Cubs pitchers who just couldn’t put it all together? For Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, it’s a narrative of “what could have been.”

That’s not not the most glamorous category to be lumped into. Wood and Prior have similar stories. They were teammates for a five-year stretch with the Cubs. And though Wood had a significantly longer career, both failed to reach the heights scouts had set for them before being drafted.

Injuries abound for Kid K

Kerry Wood, affectionately nicknamed “Kid K” by Cubs fans, was drafted in the 1st round, fourth overall by the Chicago Cubs in 1995.

Wood made his MLB debut in 1998. And that year, he threw what many consider to be one of the best-pitched games of all time. Only 20 years old at the time, Wood went the distance, pitching nine shutout innings and recorded a whopping 20 strikeouts. A hit batter and an infield single kept Wood from pitching a perfect game or no-hitter, but regardless, it is one of the most dominant performances ever given by a starting pitcher.

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Though he missed the last month of the season with elbow soreness, Wood won NL Rookie of the Year in 1998. He finished the season 13-6 with a 3.40 ERA.

Tommy John

The following year, Wood required Tommy John surgery and missed the entire 1999 season. He returned in 2000, but only to the tune of 8-7 with a 4.80 ERA. From 2001 to 2003, Wood got back on track and even pitched over 200 innings in both 2002 and 2003.

Suffering strained triceps, he missed two months of the 2004 season. In 2005, he needed more surgery. Then, during Spring Training in 2006, Wood had to have a knee operation

At this point, the writing was on the wall. The Cubs bought out the remainder of his contract. The team did bring him back in 2007, but with the stipulation that he’d be a relief pitcher moving forward. In 2008, Wood won the job as the Cubs’ closer and was even earned an All-Star selection.

After 2008, Wood went on to pitch for the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees for a few years before a brief second stint with the Cubs. He retired in 2012.

Prodigious talent thwarted by injuries

Like Kerry Wood, Mark Prior’s career did not live up to the hype. But Prior would ultimately have a much shorter career than Wood. Only five seasons, in fact. Prior was drafted by the Cubs with the second overall pick in 2001.

He made his debut in 2002, going 6-6 with a 3.32 ERA in 19 games. During his rookies season, he averaged 11.3 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. Prior was an All-Star in 2003, going 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, 2.47 FIP and a 1.103 WHIP over 211 1/3 innings pitched.

An achilles tendon injury forced Prior to miss the first two months of the 2004 season. Upon returning, he never looked like the pitcher he was for the first two years of his career.

Is a former Cubs skipper to blame?

Many people blame former Chicago Cubs manager Dusty Baker for the misfortunes of both Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. Throughout his career as a manager, Baker has been notorious for being loose with pitch counts. He once allowed Wood to throw 141 pitches in just seven innings. There were multiple occasions in which Prior threw over 130 pitches in a start.

Prior’s career ended when he was just 25 years old. He fought constantly with shoulder and elbow injuries.

Pitch count, as it relates to injury, isn’t an exact science. It varies from pitcher to pitcher. But given Wood and Prior’s problems staying healthy, perhaps Baker should have been more careful.

Next: Who will be the closer in 2018?

The trajectory of the careers of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood may have been inevitable. To say Dusty Baker shoulders the blame entirely may not be fair. But he certainly didn’t help matters. Both Wood and Prior had mechanical issues that helped contribute to their repeated injuries. With all the talent in the world, it’s hard not to wonder if things could have been different.