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Prior's been great ... so far

Are you like me? Does some hopeful and optimistic part of you already have Mark Prior's future all mapped out, including but not limited to his Hall of Fame plaque? I see it looking something like this ...

MARK WILLIAM PRIOR

CHICAGO, N.L., 2002-2013, 2019

NEW YORK, A.L., 2014-2016

PORTLAND, N.L., 2017-2019

SAN DIEGO, N.L., 2020-2021

PICTURE PERFECT POWER PITCHER WHO HELPED

LEAD CUBS TO THEIR FIRST WORLD SERIES

CHAMPIONSHIP IN NEARLY A CENTURY. WON 312

GAMES OVER 20 SEASONS. SET N.L. RECORD FOR
STRIKEOUTS BY RHP (3,537) AND 21st CENTURY N.L.
RECORD FOR LOWEST ERA (2.68) BY RHP. 5-TIME CY
YOUNG AWARDEE. NO-HIT BREWERS IN 2004 AND
YANKEES IN 2012

It's not really that easy, though. Fernando Valenzuela and Dwight Gooden both were going to be Hall of Famers. Ron Guidry and Vida Blue, too. Remember?

I remembered, when I read about Mark Prior's various current ailments, which might keep him out of action for a couple of weeks or a couple of months. And I started wondering if there's any way to put Prior's future into any sort of context.

Prior was the second overall pick in the 2001 amateur draft. He would have been the first overall pick, but the Twins didn't want to pay him what he wanted, so they selected Joe Mauer instead (and they're probably not too sorry about that). Anyway, with the help of the truly indispensable Baseball America Draft Almanac, I made a list of every pitcher who was 1) among the top three picks in a June draft ("regular phase"), and 2) was the first college pitcher drafted.

Since the draft began in 1965, 20 pitchers meet those criteria. But two of those 20 (Bryan Bullington and Kyle Sleeth) are from the last two drafts and haven't yet reached the majors, which leaves us with 18.

So (skipping ahead to the good part) how many of those 18 great college pitchers are headed to the Hall of Fame? None of them.

Nine of the 18 are still active (or hoping to be active), which means it's not really fair to pass judgment on them (which doesn't mean I won't, but not until later). Here are some numbers for the nine who aren't pitching any more ...

Drafted Record
Steve Dunning 1970, 2 23- 41
Fl. Bannister 1976, 1 134-143
Tim Leary 1979, 2 78-105
Ken Dayley 1980, 3 33- 45
Mike Moore 1981, 1 161-176
Bill Swift 1984, 2 94- 78
Bobby Witt 1985, 3 142-157
Andy Benes 1988, 1 155-139
Ben McDonald 1989, 1 78- 70
TOTALS 898-954

On the one hand, this is a fine group of pitchers, nine of them racking up nearly 900 wins. On the other hand, they lost more than 900, and only three of the nine finished their careers with winning records. Mike Moore leads the way with 161 victories, and of course he was far from a bad pitcher (though there's a certain poetic accuracy to the following elegy, composed by the sponsor of Moore's page at baseball-reference.com: "My favorite Mike Moore moment, typical of his career: While still a Mariner, walks two guys, bringing up (Jose) Canseco. Pitching coach visits the mound. Next pitch -- 3-run HR."

Now, the next group of nine, those still pitching for good money ...

Drafted Record
Greg Swindell 1986, 2 123-122
Paul Shuey 1992, 2 45- 27
Da. Dreifort 1993, 2 47- 56
Paul Wilson 1994, 1 28- 47
Kris Benson 1996, 1 35- 41
Matt Anderson 1997, 1 15- 7
Mark Mulder 1998, 2 64- 34
Adam Johnson 2000, 2 1- 3
Mark Prior 2001, 2 24- 12
TOTALS 382-349

Again, no Hall of Famers in the bunch, with the possible exceptions of Mulder and Prior, and of course there's still plenty of time for bad things to happen to them.

Now, you could argue, and convincingly, that Mark Prior is a different sort of pitcher and doesn't belong in a group with Andy Benes and Kris Benson, which is true I suppose except people used to say the same sorts of things about Andy Benes and Kris Benson (not to mention Floyd Bannister and especially Ben McDonald). I'm like you; I think Prior's the best young pitcher since Roger Clemens, too.

But there is something special about Prior, isn't there. I figured the ERA's for all 18 pitchers in the study, for the two seasons beginning with their (last) rookie season. Prior's No. 1 on the list, with nobody else even close.

ERA W-L
Prior 2.74 24-12
Benes 3.58 16-14
McDonald 3.67 14-13
Benson 3.95 21-26
Mulder 4.25 30-18

So among all those pitchers who were regarded as sure things coming out of college, Prior easily has been the most impressive through two seasons. Does it mean anything? All we know for sure is that you'd rather be the most impressive than the least impressive. Forget about the raves Prior got coming out of USC; he has nearly two major league seasons under his belt, and at this point in his career he's a significantly better bet for long-term stardom than any of his high-draft predecessors, simply because he's already proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's good enough to dominate the greatest hitters in the world.

But is Prior a lock for the Hall of Fame, or even for 200 wins? Hardly. If it were really that easy, more guys would do it.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-written with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.