Former USC right-hander Mark Prior is back in the minor leagues with the New York Yankees organization, attempting to make a return to the majors after five years of injury-related struggles.
Twenty-two former USC Trojans have been in the big leagues since Mark Prior last made an appearance at baseball's highest level, in August of 2006 as a member of the Chicago Cubs.
But Prior, injuries and all, is still arguably the most well-known ex-Trojan in baseball in this era, with only Barry Zito providing competition among active players. He has recorded only 42 career wins, just one season of more than 170 innings pitched, and at least 10 serious injuries during his big-league career, but Prior is still Prior -- and, with that, he's attempting another comeback this summer with the New York Yankees.
He made his return last week for New York's rookie-league squad, pitching two innings and allowing one hit and one unearned run. It was his first appearance of any sort since he threw a scoreless inning in Triple-A in April and then sat out three months with a groin injury.
Let's review the 30-year-old Prior's past, present and likely future in this mostly-weekly feature on the USC report:
Prior transferred to USC after his freshman season at Vanderbilt, a little-known fact, meaning he spent only two seasons in Troy. But those two years were about as good as they get. Prior made a total of 37 starts over his two years as a Trojan and won 25 of them, accumulating 275 innings with an ERA of 2.62. He struck out out 352 batters and walked just 64. A third of his junior-year starts were complete games.
And he did some hitting, too. His first year at USC, he hit four home runs, or one in just over every 8 at-bats -- the best home-run ratio on the team. His slugging percentage of .636 was second-best on the team behind Justin Gemoll, who made it all the way to Triple-A for the Kansas City as a third baseman.
That junior season for Prior still stands as one of the best ever in collegiate baseball. He swept every major player of the year award. He lost only one game. And his month of April was otherworldly: a 5-0 record, 0.50 ERA, 58 strikeouts and two walks in 36 innings.
Then, exactly one week before USC was eliminated in the second round of the College World Series in Omaha in June 2001, Prior was selected 2nd overall by the Chicago Cubs, one pick behind the Twins' Joe Mauer.
Within a year, Prior was in the bigs. He made nine total starts in the minors, at Double-A and Triple-A, and struck out 79 batters in 51 innings to move right along.
He made his debut in May 2002 as a 21-year-old phenom and picked up a win over the Pirates straight away. His rookie year with the Cubs was good: 19 starts, a 6-6 record, a 3.32 ERA and a nearly 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
But his second season was even better. Prior had the fourth-best ERA (2.43) in the majors at age 22, winning 18 games and earning his first (and only) All-Star nod that July. Even then, though, he missed three starts after he collided with Marcus Giles in the infield, and that injury was a precursor of what was to come from Prior.
In 2004, he missed two months with an Achilles' tendon injury. In 2005, he missed a month when a Brad Hawpe liner hit him in the elbow. In 2006, he hurt his oblique and missed two starts and then missed the final month and a half with shoulder tendinitis. After 2003, Prior totaled 18 wins, 17 losses and roughly 40 missed starts at the major-league level, and another eight starts in the minors for rehab purposes.
He didn't throw a single pitch for an MLB organization between 2006 and 2010.
Prior signed with the Yankees last December after he hitched on with the Texas Rangers quickly in August following a successful nine-appearance stint with the Orange County Flyers of the Golden Baseball League. He appeared in spring training with the Yanks and then pitched in four games in April at High-A and Triple-A before hurting his groin.
Now, as a converted reliever, he's supposed to make another relief appearance in the near future for the Gulf Coast League Yankees. His fastball reportedly reached 90 miles per hour in his outing last week -- a far cry from the 95 he used to hit with regularity while with the Cubs but still probably enough to get hitters out at the major-league level.
Prior, 30, still has a few years left to attempt a comeback, surely. The problem is, as it has long been, the injury history. If he can stay healthy through September and the offseason, it wouldn't be inconceivable for him to make a team in spring training next year.
But that 'if' is as big as ever.