Post Hype Prospect – Mark Prior and Joe Mauer

If one was to look at the 2001 MLB Rule IV Draft without any knowledge of the change in the baseball landscape over the past decade, it would be likely that it would make sense that Joe Mauer was picked ahead of Mark Prior (though one might wonder why Mark Teixeira and David Wright went as late as they did). Mauer and Prior have become inextricably linked due to the Minnesota Twins’ overt refusal to pay Prior’s bonus demands and the veracity of the old adage: there’s no such thing as a pitching prospect (or, TNSTAAPP, for short).

Leading up to the 2001 draft, Mark Prior was viewed as the complete package. Prior, a 6’5” 230 pound righty at the University of Southern California, was the winner of the Dick Howser Trophy, given annually to the national college baseball player of the year by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association after a season where he went 15-1 with a 1.70 ERA while striking out 202 batters, walking 18, and allowing 100 hits in 138 innings. Prior’s pitching motion appeared to be clean and easy, while he threw mid-90s fastballs, coupled with his curveball, slurve, and a changeup. Viewed as nearly ready for major league baseball, Prior was rumored to want a record-setting contract and made it publicly know, albeit through back channels, that he did not want to be drafted by the Minnesota Twins. The Minnesota Twins, often claiming that they could not financially compete with the larger market teams despite their owner, Carl Pohlad, being one of the richest owners in all of sports (his estimated wealth in 2006 was $2.6 billion), had a decision to make. Potentially blow the #1 pick in the draft or take another player. Another top college player, Mark Teixeira, represented by Scott Boras, was rumored to be seeking a similar bonus to Prior, was not an alternative.

Accordingly, the Twins turned their attention to a local option, St. Paul’s Joe Mauer. A multi-sport standout at Cretin-Derham Hall High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, Mauer was the USA Today High School Player of the Year in football (2000) and in baseball (2001), and had committed to play both sports at Florida State. Additionally, Mauer had appeared in Sports Illustrated’s Faces in the Crowd feature (not entirely relevant, but pretty cool).

With the #1 pick in the 2001 Rule IV draft, the Minnesota Twins picked Mauer, a move that, to the casual observer, looked like a total cop-out move. But would time bear out their pick? Yes, but not for the reasons considered at the time.

Mauer signed quickly in 2001 and appeared in 32 games for the Elizabethtown Twins, the Twins Rookie level Appalachian League affiliate, putting up a 400/492/491 slash line splitting his time between catching and DH’ing. Prior didn’t sign until August and failed to appear in any league games.

In 2002, Baseball America‘s Top 10 looked like this:

1. Josh Beckett, rhp, Marlins

2. Mark Prior, rhp, Cubs

3. Hank Blalock, 3b, Rangers

4. Sean Burroughs, 3b, Padres

5. Carlos Pena, 1b, Athletics

6. Juan Cruz, rhp, Cubs

7. Joe Mauer, c, Twins

8. Wilson Betemit, ss, Braves

9. Drew Henson, 3b, Yankees

10. Mark Teixeira, 3b, Rangers

In effect, Baseball America said that the draft order should have gone Mark Prior, Joe Mauer, then Mark Teixeira (who went #5 to the Rangers, after the then-Devil Rays picked Dewon Brazelton at #3 then the Phillies picked Gavin Floyd at #4).

In 2002, Prior dominated the minor leagues. In six starts with the AA West Tenn Diamond Jaxx of the Southern League, he struck out 55and walked 10, while putting up a 2.60 ERA in 34.2 innings (14.3 K/9). In May, he was promoted to the AAA Iowa Cubs of the Pacific Coast League (Iowa is on the Pacific coast?) and was nearly as dominant, striking out 24 and walking 8 in 16.1 innings, while putting up a sparkling 1.65 ERA. On May 22, Prior made his big league debut, striking out 10, and allowing only four hits and two runs in six innings, to pick up his first big league win. Prior put up a solid 3.32 ERA (122 RRA+) in 19 starts over 116.2 innings. Prior came in 7th in the NL Rookie of the Year Award voting (despite having the second highest WAR).

Mauer’s 2002 season was also impressive, as he hit 302/393/392 for the Quad Cities River Bandits, the Twins’ A-level affiliate in the Midwest League. Mauer caught 81 games, played 13 at first base, and spent some time at DH, impressing scouts with his talent. After 2002, Prior was no longer eligible to be on any top prospect lists, but Mauer moved up to #4 on Baseball America’s list (behind Mark Teixeira, Rocco Baldelli, and Jose Reyes, just slightly ahead of future first ballot Hall of Famer Jesse Foppert).

Prior’s 2003 is the stuff of legends (or nightmares for Cubs fans, who watched Dusty Baker make Prior and Kerry Wood throw as many pitches as humanly possible), as Prior went 18-6 in 30 starts, logging 211.1 innings, while striking out 245 batters (10.4/9) and placing third in the NL Cy Young Award voting (behind Eric Gagne and Jason Schmidt, despite having the highest WAR of any pitcher in the NL). The Cubs came a mere out from making it to their first World Series since the Truman Administration. Mauer had another banner season in the minor leagues. Starting the year playing for the Fort Myers Miracle of the High-A Florida State League, Mauer put up a 335/395/412 line while splitting time between catcher and DH. Promoted to the New Britain Rock Cats of the AA Eastern League, Mauer’s numbers improved, hitting 341/400/453, playing almost exclusively behind the plate. Mauer put also walked 49 times and struck out 49 times, showing a mature approach to go with his pure talent. Mauer also took part of the 2003 All-Star Futures Game at U.S. Cellular Field.

Both Prior and Mauer spent significant time on the DL in 2004. Prior missed the first two months of the 2004 season with an injury to his Achilles tendon. Rumors swirled that Prior’s ulnar collateral ligament was injured and he would need Tommy John surgery, but both Prior and the Cubs denied the rumors. Prior ended up with a 4.02 ERA in 21 starts, finishing the season with a career high 16 strike outs against the Cincinnati Reds. Mauer, now ranked Baseball America’s #1 overall prospect, began the year as the starting catcher for the Twins, and went 2/3 with two walks. In his second game of the season, Mauer injured his left medial meniscus (read: cartilage in the knee), had surgery, and missed a month of the season. After a cup of tea in the minors (7 total games), Mauer returned to the twins and immediately began mashing. On July 15, Mauer had a 308/369/570 line when the pain and swelling in his knee forced an early ending to the 2004 season.

In 2005, Prior began the year on the DL and did not make his debut until April 13. Prior was pitching well when, on May 27, Prior was hit on his right elbow by a comebacker off the bat of Brad Hawpe, causing a compression fracture and sending Prior back to the DL. Prior returned on June 26 and made a total of 27 starts, putting up a 3.67 ERA in 166.2 Innings, with 188 strike outs. Mauer, still considered a rookie (he had 122 at bats in 2004, just eight shy of the required 130), was again ranked the #1 prospect in Baseball America and, again, began the year as the starting catcher for the Twins. Mauer appeared in 131 games, putting up a 294/372/411 slash line.

2006 is when it all fell apart for Prior, as he felt stiffness in his shoulder during spring training and was diagnosed with a strained shoulder. Prior’s debut did not occur until June 18, when the Detroit Tigers scored eight runs (seven earned) in 3.2 innings. Prior went six innings only once in 2006. Prior ended up making only nine starts, pitching 43.2 innings, striking out 38 batters (while a 7.8 K/9 is great for many pitchers, Prior averaged 10.6 K/9 his first four seasons), and earning a 7.21 ERA. On July 14, Prior was put on the disabled list for the remainder of the season with tendinitis. In 2006, Mauer appeared in 140 games, putting up a 347/429/507 slash line. Mauer’s .347 batting average led the Major Leagues (.003 ahead of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Freddy Sanchez). Mauer was selected to his first All-Star Game, was awarded his first Silver Slugger, and came in 6th place in the AL MVP vote (teammate Justin Morneau won the award despite having the 19th highest WAR. Grady Sizemore, who came in 11th place led the league with a 7.3 WAR and Mauer, with a 7.0 WAR was in second place. Third place was held by teammate Johan Santana, with 6.9).

In the off season, Prior filed for salary arbitration for the first time, eventually agreeing with the Cubs on a $3.575 contract for 2007. In April, Dr. James Andrews performed exploratory arthroscopic surgery on Prior, and determined that he had injuries to his shoulder, and performed a debridement of Prior’s rotator cuff, and repaired labral and capsular injuries in Priors shoulder. Prior would be out the entire season, though reports at the time indicated that he could be back at full strength in 2008. Though not as extreme, Mauer also had injury issues in 2007. After agreeing to a four-year, $33 million contract with the Twins (with a $25,000 bonus for winning the Gold Glove), Mauer had a small stress fracture during spring training, followed by a left quadriceps strain in early June, which landed him on the 15-day DL. Mauer appeared in only 109 games, still putting up a solid 293/382/426 slash line.

Mark Prior would not pitch in an organized, professional baseball game until 2010, and only pitched a total of 24 innings before being beset by more injuries. Conversely, Mauer put up MVP-caliber numbers, with a 332/411/481 slash line from 2008-2011, while leading the AL in batting twice, and putting up a historic 365/444/587 slash line in route to the MVP in 2009. Though his numbers have come down significantly since 2009 (while his salary has skyrocketed), Mauer is still an elite defensive catcher with a potent bat (and great sideburns).

So what happened? Were the pundits incorrect? Yes, but It is easy to look back at a draft and think “I could have done better,” but it is nearly impossible to predict what a group of people under age 22 will do over the course of the next 15 years. The 2001 draft was seemingly filled with more landmines than most (Dewan Brazelton, the #3 pick has a -4.0 WAR, and 18 of the 44 first round or supplemental first round picks failed to reach the major leagues), but, in the end, it appears that going the “cheap” route worked well for the Twins, at least until they have to pay off the nearly $160 million left on Joe Mauer’s contract.

In the end, the best pick may have been one of the following:

  • A right handed pitcher from Pepperdine taken with the 28th pick of the second round (#72 overall) named Dan Haren;
  • A first baseman from Missouri State University taken with the 4th pick of the 5th round (#140 overall) named Ryan Howard;
  • A third baseman from the University of Cincinnati taken with the 17th pick of the 8th round (#243 overall) named Kevin Youkilis; or
  • A second baseman from the University of Memphis taken with the 22nd pick of the 11th round (#338) named Dan Uggla.

Either way, their result was better than Mark Prior. Maybe, just maybe, if a few things had been slightly different, we would have been mocking the Twins for being cheap and applauding the Cubs for being willing to spend money.

Until next time, follow me at @HypeProspect.
Update: The Boston Red Sox have signed Mark Prior to a contract, presumably a minor league deal, per a tweet from Jon Heyman:



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