What if? With Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, Cubs fans still wonder what might have been

Baseball null Last week we looked at three position players — Eric Davis, Nomar Garciaparra and Grady Sizemore — who started their careers looking bound for Cooperstown, only to have injuries derail those hopes and expectations. Today, we’re looking at a couple of pitchers who suffered similar frustrating fates. These Cubs pitchers who still bring about strong emotions from those who love Wrigley Field: Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  Which Cubs pitcher had more of a "what might have been" career?— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) May 23, 2019Let’s take a look at what happened. MORE: Watch 'ChangeUp,' a new live whiparound show on DAZN Mark Prior, Cubs (and other organizations)The promise and the glory: Before the Cubs chose Mark Prior with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2001 draft, the question wasn’t whether Prior — the dominating college right-hander from USC with “perfect mechanics” — would be a star in the majors, the question was whether he would skip the minors entirely and just start his career in the bigs. Prior did make nine starts in the Cubs system (six at Double-A and three at Triple-A) in 2002 before making his Chicago debut. He was stellar, striking out 147 in 116 2/3 innings for the Cubs, posting a 3.32 ERA and 3.0 bWAR in just 19 starts. That set the stage for an unforgettable 2003 season from the 22-year-old righty. Prior was everything Cubs fans could have hoped for. He made 30 starts, posted a 2.43 ERA and 7.4 bWAR, struck out 245 batters in 211 1/3 innings and finished third in the Cy Young race. In his first career playoff start, against the Braves in the NLDS, Prior finished his complete-game effort in 133 pitches, allowing just two hits and one run. The Cubs won his first NLCS start behind seven strong innings. In his Game 6 start, with the Cubs one win away from the World Series, Prior cruised through his first seven innings, whitewashing the Marlins. You know what happened in the eighth inning, though, so we won’t get into it. Watch, if you'd like. The downfall: Prior missed the first two months of 2004 with an Achilles tendon injury, and he wasn’t quite the same when he came back in June. Dealing with a barking elbow, Prior allowed five or more earned runs five times in 21 starts — after doing so just twice in 30 starts in 2003 — and finished with a 4.02 ERA. The common cry was that manager Dusty Baker had used Prior too much down the stretch in 2003 (he averaged 126 pitches a game in September), but a collision on the base paths with Braves second baseman Marcus Giles injured his shoulder and cost him a couple of starts. In retrospect, that injury can reasonably be traced to a lot of Prior’s issues. Prior was much better to open 2005, but in his 10th start of the year — with a 2.93 ERA — a line drive off the bat of Brad Hawpe fractured Prior’s pitching elbow. He spent a month on the DL, then had a 4.07 ERA in 18 starts after he returned. Shoulder soreness made 2006 a disaster; Prior made just nine starts and finished with a 7.21 ERA. He would never again pitch in the major leagues. Those shoulder issues kept him out for a couple of years, and then a cavalcade of injuries kept him away until he finally retired in 2013. The aftermath: Yeah. He finally retired in 2013, and the last time he pitched in the majors was 2006. Those aren’t typos. Prior didn’t pitch at all in 2007, 2008 or 2009, kept off the field by shoulder issues (he was under contract with the Padres for 2008-09). He pitched 11 innings in the independent Golden Baseball League in 2010 and one with the Rangers’ Triple-A team in 2010, 12 innings in the Yankees system in 2011 (after a solid spring with the big club), 25 innings with Boston’s Triple-A club in 2012 (striking out 38 as a reliever) and, finally, made seven appearances with Cincinnati’s Triple-A club in 2013.He just could not stay healthy. His body — especially his shoulder — betrayed him, and no matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t get back to the majors. Feels worth pointing out two quotes here. First, from a piece he wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2016: “Others — mostly Cubs fans — still blame my manager, Dusty Baker, for the series of injuries that derailed my career. They believe that he overused me in 2003 and blah, blah, blah. Only, here’s the thing: I don’t blame Dusty for what happened to me.”That last sentence was bolded for emphasis, in case you wondered.And second, a quote from his dad, Jerry, from the June 4, 2001, issue of The Sporting News magazine (the draft preview issue feature story on Prior). He was addressing the question we mentioned earlier: Should Prior skip the minors and go straight to the bigs in the 2001 season? “I think it’s ludicrous. I’d rather see him pitch for 10 or 15 years. Get him 10 starts in the bigs and (added to his college starts) you guarantee over 200 innings on a 20-year-old arm. You can chart every kid in this age who hit 200 innings (and you’ll find each one) breaks down. There’s just reams of statistics on pitchers who break down between the ages of 20 and 25. … Somebody has to p

rotect him. I’d like him to show up for his second season.”MORE: 10 single-season feats we'll never see againKerry Wood, Cubs (and two others)The promise and the glory: The story of Kerry Wood’s promise and glory can only have one starting point, and it’s not when he was the No. 4 overall pick in the 1995 draft as a hard-throwing prep right-hander from Texas conjuring visions of Nolan Ryan or Roger Clemens, or when he threw five shutout innings in his second career start, at 20 years old. No, the Kerry Wood story starts … well, you know where it starts. In his fifth career start, Wood turned in one of the most dominant performances in history. The kid with the exploding fastball and ungodly breaking pitches whiffed 20 Astros and allowed only two base runners — one hit and one hit-by-pitch — in an outing that captured the attention of pretty much every single baseball fan in the world. The Astros looked completely helpless at the plate; even future Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio combined to strike out four times in six at-bats. In a Sporting News feature on Wood after the command performance, there was this line: “Wood’s development is in overdrive, careening toward greatness.”Wood didn’t pitch the final month of the season, but he still won the NL Rookie of the Year award, a close race against a guy who turned in a pretty fine career, Todd Helton. Wood’s final numbers still make Cubs fans salivate and wince at the same time. His 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings — 233 strikeouts in 166 2/3 innings — set a major-league record (since passed but still fourth all-time). Sure, he walked too many guys (4.6 per nine), but few people made solid contact (NL-best 6.3 hits per nine) and Cubs fans started to dream of a better tomorrow.The downfall: Remember how we just mentioned Wood missed the final month of his rookie season? His elbow was sore, and by the next spring, it wasn’t better. The Cubs announced he’d miss the 1999 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Let’s stop for a minute and acknowledge that TJ surgery wasn’t Wood’s final downfall. Far from it. But in a career that included 14 trips to the disabled list in 14 years — four of the 60-day variety — for an array of ailments (including his elbow, back, oblique, shoulder, finger and triceps), this first one was the longest. The aftermath: Wood was so-so in his return from TJ surgery in 2000 (4.80 ERA in 23 starts), as is often the case. But he was peak Kerry Wood — tons of strikeouts, lots of walks and few hits allowed — from 2001 to 2003, including the best season of his career, in 2003. Wood led the league in strikeouts (266) and produced a 6.1 bWAR, with a 3.20 ERA in 211 innings covering 32 starts. His first three postseason starts that year were outstanding — 2.45 ERA, 25 strikeouts in 22 innings — but his Game 7 start in the NLCS against the Marlins didn’t go so well (7 ER in 5 2/3 innings), as you probably know.Wood spent a couple of months on the DL in 2004 with a triceps injury, then was limited to 66 innings in 2005 with shoulder issues and only made four starts in 2006 with even more shoulder problems. At that point, it became clear that his carer as a starter was done. Wood reinvented himself as a reliever — he made the 2008 NL All-Star team as the Cubs’ closer — but even with the smaller workload, injuries piled up. His sixth season as a relief pitcher was his last. At 35 years old, Wood knew it was time to hang up his spikes. He did give the Wrigley faithful one final thrill, striking out Dayan Viciedo with the final pitch of his career.