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Thursday, May 16, 2002

Minor Notes: Prior Impressions

Mike Emeigh takes in a game between Mark Prior-led West Tennessee and the hometown Carolina Mudcats.

He’s been called the “best college pitcher ever”. The Cubs drafted
him in the first round of the 2001 draft with hopes that he would soon
join Kerry Wood and Jon Lieber to anchor a pitching rotation that
could rival the Jenkins/Holtzman/Hands combo of the ‘60s. Some reports
out of spring training implied that he was sufficiently polished to
pitch in the major leagues immediately, without the need for a minor
league apprenticeship. The Chicago media has been beating the drums
for an early recall as the Cubbies struggled out of the gate.

So how good is Mark Prior, really? I had the chance to watch Prior
pitch against the Carolina Mudcats in an AA game recently, and while
one game doesn’t prove much of anything, I got enough from this one to
get a pretty good impression of him.

Prior was obviously missing his “A” game, struggling with location
and command of his breaking pitches. After getting ahead of Rene Reyes
0-2 on two fastballs that Reyes didn’t come close to touching, he
tried an off-speed pitch on the 2-2 count which he left out over the
plate enough so that Reyes was able to guide it through the
infield. Prior then fell behind Garrett Atkins and had to come in with
a pitch which Atkins roped into left for a base knock. Matt Holliday
drew a walk to load the bases. Prior blew his fast ball past
J.D. Closser for a strikeout and got ahead of Choo Freeman 0-2, but
then he threw another breaking ball that didn’t bite as much as he
would have liked, and Freeman got it past 3B Ryan Gripp for a
bases-clearing triple, putting the Mudcats up 3-0.

Even though everything wasn’t working for him, Prior could very
easily have escaped the first without allowing any runs; the balls hit
by Reyes and Freeman were hits primarily because they were
well-placed. After the first, Prior didn’t allow another run, and was
in real trouble only in the fifth when the first two hitters reached
base - at which point he put something extra on the ball, getting
Atkins on a shallow pop to center and fanning Holliday and
Closser. Prior took 30 pitches to get through the first inning, and
had 60 pitches after three innings, yet made it from there into the
seventh inning before being lifted with 109 total pitches. He walked
2, fanned seven, and allowed six hits in his 6 1/3 innings of work,
leaving with a no-decision as West Tenn won 4-3 with an unearned run
in the eighth.

There’s very little not to like about Prior. This was an off night
for him, as manager Bobby Dickerson admitted after the game, and he
gave up only three runs and could very well not have allowed any. I
liked his approach to pitching. He works quickly, doesn’t waste a lot
of motion on the mound, and doesn’t seem to get fazed or rattled when
things aren’t going right. He probably needs more work on pitch
selection and setting up hitters - enough so that I think the Cubs
were wise to start him at AA and not to push him to the majors in a
big hurry. Other than that, I don’t really see any weak spots in his
game; as long as he doesn’t get hurt, he should be the real deal.

Dickerson was ejected from the game one batter after Prior left,
after the first-base umpire (there are only three umps in Class AA)
blew what appeared to be an obvious interference call at second
base. On a grounder hit up the middle with the runner on first base
going, the ball, runner, and fielder all arrived in the same general
vicinity at the same time. The runner appeared to bump into the second
baseman, whose glove came off as the ball scooted by into
centerfield. Dickerson came out to argue and was gone about ten
seconds after he got to the ump. According to rule 7.08(b), a
runner who is adjudged to have hindered a fielder who is attempting to
make a play on a batted ball is out whether it was intentional or
not.
I don’t know what the ump actually called, but from my
vantage point near the first base dugout it was clear that the runner
did hinder the fielder.

West Tenn’s closer, Gabe Sollecito, looks sort of like a
right-handed version of Fernando Valenzuela. Sollecito does a loud
Monica Seles-like grunt every time he releases the ball. The success
rate of minor-league closers in the majors is, shall we say, not
particularly good, and I wouldn’t expect Sollecito to buck that trend,
but he’s certainly different.

I’ll add some impressions of the Rockies’ prospects at Carolina in a
future article, as their ballpark is about five minutes from my place
of employment and I get there quite a bit. The Rockies have
traditionally stocked the Carolina team with lesser players, and their
top prospects haven’t spent a lot of time here, but this year they
seem to be dedicated to putting a decent team on the field.

Mike Emeigh Posted: May 16, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 0 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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