Tony Conigliaro, Don Mattingly, Johan Santana. Baseball history is littered with guys who seemed destined for Cooperstown, only to see their career go off the rails because of injuries. While it was way too soon to say he was on that Hall of Fame track, for Chicago Cubs fans, Mark Prior and the question, “What might have been,” still remains to this day.
Of course, the story of the Cubs itself is a lot of ‘what if’s’. Prior to 2016, that was the legacy of the franchise once known as the ‘Lovable Losers’. Until we saw Kris Bryant fire a throw across the diamond on a slow ground ball in Game 7 that landed in the mitt of Anthony Rizzo, our most recent brush with a title came back in 2003, when Prior teamed up with Kerry Wood atop the Chicago rotation in historic fashion.
That year, Prior and Wood combined to strike out over 500 batters – as the Cubs won the NL Central, their first division title since 1989. It seemed like a season of destiny for the North Siders, who appeared ready to ride their aces to the top of the baseball world.
We don’t need to go into how that 2003 season ended. We know the story. Still, it doesn’t take away from just how dominant the big right-hander was that year, amassing 245 strikeouts and winning 18 games, en route to being named a National League Cy Young finalist.
His 10.43 K/9 that season still ranks sixth in franchise history, and his ability to overpower hitters is still remembered even now, nearly two decades later.
While still a quality big league arm, he never replicated that success on the mound – and by the age of 25, he’d thrown his last MLB pitch. Of course, Chicago won back-to-back division crowns in 2007 and 2008, only to be swept in three straight games in the NLDS both years. It’s worth wondering how different those years might have been with Prior, who still would have been just 26 and 27, respectively, healthy and atop the rotation.
Chicago Cubs: Mark Prior’s brief stint left a lasting legacy on the North Side
So as we sit here this holiday season, if there’s one Cubs player I wish we could have seen pitch his entire career without injury, it has to be Prior. Hyped unlike any pitching prospect I’ve seen the team take in my time as a fan, it still hurts to see how his time in the big league played out.
But, hey, at least he finally got that World Series ring. Don’t forget – he’s the pitching coach for the Dodgers, who brought home that title in 2020.