March 15, 2005

The Great Debate: Revisited

Back in 2001, when the Minnesota Twins took Joe Mauer over Mark Prior with the first pick in the 2001 draft, I felt it was a mistake. A "mistake" in the same sense that marrying, say, Jessica Alba instead of Elisha Cuthbert is a mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. One option -- either marrying Cuthbert or drafting Prior -- represents an extraordinary choice, while the other option -- either marrying Alba or drafting Mauer -- represents a slightly less extraordinary choice. Or at least that's how I saw it at the time.

In June of 2001, the Twins were right in the middle of what turned out to be their first winning season since 1992. They had a good, young nucleus of players in place and I thought adding a polished college pitcher like Prior, who was considered by many to be the greatest college pitcher of all-time, would be exactly the sort of thing that could make them an elite team in a hurry. And while Mauer was considered a pretty amazing talent himself, he was a high school catcher, which is perhaps the riskiest type of prospect, and his journey to the big leagues would be significantly longer than Prior's.

Sure enough, Prior's major-league career got off to a quick start. While Mauer was hitting .302 at Single-A Quad Cities in 2002, Prior made 19 starts for the Cubs, posting a 3.32 ERA and 147-to-38 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 116.2 innings. The next year, while Mauer was spending the season between Single-A Fort Myers and Double-A New Britain, Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA for Chicago, finishing third in the National League Cy Young balloting while ranking among the top three in the league in ERA, wins, winning percentage, and strikeouts.

Through the 2003 season, things with Mauer and Prior had played out exactly how I expected them to. Mauer was one of the best prospects in all of baseball, but was still a step or two away from even making his big-league debut. Meanwhile, Prior had already established himself as one of the elite pitchers in baseball and his outstanding 2003 season was a big part of why the Cubs made it all the way to the NLCS. They were both as good as advertised, but Prior was simply ready to be great sooner. The fact that he went 2-1 with a 2.31 ERA in three postseason starts for the Cubs in 2003, and not the Twins, was exactly why I thought passing on him in favor of Mauer was a mistake.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to the Hall of Fame for both players. Injuries kept Prior from starting the 2004 season on time, and when the Twins traded A.J. Pierzynski to San Francisco and made Mauer their everyday catcher, it looked as if the kid from St. Paul might be set to close the gap on Prior. Instead, while Prior went 6-4 with a bloated 4.02 ERA in 21 starts, Mauer injured his knee in his second game, came back midway through the season, and then re-injured the same knee. He was great when he played, hitting .308/.369/.570 with outstanding defense, but he ended up playing just 35 games and major questions about his long-term ability to remain a catcher surfaced.

Suddenly the debate over whether Mauer's Hall of Fame career is going to end up being better than Prior's Hall of Fame career centers on two injured players with some major question marks. Mauer is once again back to trying to show that his surgically repaired knee can withstand the rigors of catching on a regular basis. The early results from spring training are very mixed, as he was able to catch just seven innings before the knee started swelling up and giving him problems again. He took some time off and a few anti-inflammatory drugs, and was back behind the plate this weekend. While everyone involved is toeing an optimistic party line, Mauer remains almost perpetually stuck in the first phase of recovery, continuously taking one step forward only to take two steps back.

But while Mauer is at least on the field, testing out the knee again and again, Prior is now completely out of commission. The Cubs announced yesterday that Prior is out indefinitely with an elbow problem that the team says is different from the one that sidelined him last season. I'm not sure whether or not having two types of elbow injuries sideline you within the same year is any better than having one injury re-occur, but like Alba versus Cuthbert, I'm pretty sure the options are close enough that it doesn't much matter.

In the grand scheme of things, what has happened to Mauer and Prior since the Twins made their choice in June of 2001 doesn't change whether or not the team's decision was the correct one. Or even if there was a "correct one." Minnesota didn't know then that a pitcher who many said had perfect mechanics and the prototype pitching body would suffer the same fate that so many young pitchers have. And Minnesota didn't know then that the risky high school catcher would turn out to be every bit as good as they could possibly have imagined, only to have a freak injury derail his career anyway.

More than any of that, the almost parallel stories of Mauer and Prior, both bursting with potential and plagued by injuries, serve as yet another example of something we had more than enough examples of in the first place: There is no such thing as a sure thing in baseball. No matter what the Twins did on draft day, whether they passed on the once-in-a-lifetime college ace with a big asking price or decided one of the greatest high school catching prospects in baseball history was still just a high school catching prospect, they'd be in the exact same place right now. Aside from getting a few hundred innings of dominant starting pitching, the only thing that would really have changed if they had gone with Prior is that the state of Minnesota would be breathlessly awaiting daily -- no, make that hourly -- updates on an elbow instead of a knee.

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