Couldn't find a picture of Mark Prior, so here is David Ortiz sharing wisdom, or perhaps telling Starlin Castro that Boston's awesome and he should demand a trade. (Photo by David Banks/Getty Images)
In a season largely characterized by disappointment, it's been fascinating to see production from unexpected sources. Last night, Franklin Morales filled in for Josh Beckett, and delivered one of the more dominant performances handed in by a Red Sox starter this year. In his 19 games this year with Boston, Scott Podsednik has put up a .409 OBP with six steals. Daniel Nava has put up a .919 OPS in his time so far, and played surprisingly solid defense. The performances of these role players have been critical in keeping the Red Sox afloat while their starters either recover from injury or try to break out of long slumps.
There's another player who's performing above and beyond anything that was expected of him this year, even though he hasn't been called up to Boston. In early May, the Sox signed Mark Prior to a minor-league deal. At the time, no one thought much of it, I think my response to one person was "worst case, he bumps ticket sales in Portland for a week or two." Well, all of a sudden he's putting up kind of terrifying numbers. In 6.2 relief innings for Pawtucket, Prior's struck out 15. That's not a typo. Small sample warnings all over the place, but that's 20.25 K/9, which even in that small a sample makes you sit up. It's possible, if highly unlikely, that the Sox have found themselves an interesting bullpen option in Prior.
Prior's success, and that of Andrew Miller in the pen this season, got me thinking about past reclamation projects the Sox have undertaken. Every team takes risks every now and then, betting the farm on a high draft pick, signing a big-ticket free agent after a giant contract year. Boston, in recent years, has spent a lot of its gambling budget on broken pitchers, guys coming off surgery and looking for another shot. Sometimes it works out, although rarely in anything like season-changing fashion. The rest of the time, well, there's a reason these pitchers were easy to acquire. Let's take a quick tour through some of the Sox' past fixer-uppers.
Wade Miller, 2005: This is probably the first guy that comes to mind for most of you in this category. Wade Miller was signed by Boston to a one year, $1.5 million contract before the 2005 season. In his time with Houston, he'd been a pretty solid starter, putting up 7.7 K/9 and and an ERA generally in the mid-threes. In 2004, he'd gone on the DL with a frayed rotator cuff, and wound up non-tendered. $1.5 million for a guy who might be able to get twenty good starts in seemed like a solid gamble, especially with a rotation of Tim Wakefield, David Wells, Bronson Arroyo, and Matt Clement. Miller made it up in May, threw 91 thoroughly mediocre innings, then blew out his shoulder completely.
Bartolo Colon, 2008: Colon had spent most of 2006 and 2007 falling slowly apart, due to the general wear-and-tear of pitching major-league fastballs while very large. The Sox took a flier, figuring anything close to the Colon of old would be worth a few bucks. He came up in May, started seven games, then wound up back on the DL for the rest of the year. He has since returned with the Yankees, and has been awesome. Because life, children, is not bloody fair.
Brad Penny, 2009: Penny battled shoulder inflammation for his entire final season with the Dodgers, and was then snapped up by Boston on a one-year, $5 million deal. He threw 131.2 innings for Boston, starting 24 games and putting up a gorgeous 5.61 ERA. In thanks, the Red Sox released him in late August. San Francisco picked him up, and he proceeded to go 4-1 with a 2.59 ERA for the Giants. The AL East is harder than your division.
John Smoltz, 2009: Not sure exactly what the deal was in 2009 with patchwork pitchers, but that's how it went. Smoltz had finished his Hall of Fame tenure with Atlanta on the DL, having required surgery to repair his labrum. Boston apparently liked what they saw in his rehab, because they signed him to a one-year deal at $5.5 million. His recovery kept him shelved until June, at which point he made his much-anticipated debut, his first-ever time pitching with a team not the Braves. He got shelled, giving up five runs in five innings to the Nats. That would be the tale of Smoltz's brief tenure with Boston. He finished his only season in the AL after 40 innings at an 8.33 ERA.
Rich Hill, 2010: The pride of Milton, MA, Hill had one incredible season with the Cubs, and has been trying to stay on the field ever since. Signed by Boston as a sidearming reliever, he spent most of 2010 recovering from labrum surgery, then came up in 2011 and was absolutely terrific as a lefty specialist, striking out 12 in nine appearances. He then blew out his elbow and underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned from that recently, and is now back on the DL with a strain of that same elbow. When he's been on the field, he's been terrific, but so far his Sox career spans less than 25 innings.
Aaron Cook, 2012: Cook spent his time in Colorado doing the near-impossible: keeping the ball on the ground. In his last two seasons, though, his arm began to wear down, and his sinker kept rising. The Rockies didn't pick up his option for 2012, leaving him available for the Sox to take a shot. After a few months in the minors waiting for a rotation slot to open up, Cook made his debut against Baltimore, and was pitching well until a botched play at the plate left him with a knee-ful of Chris Davis's spikes. He's been on the DL since.
So where will Mark Prior wind up among these stories? Hard to say. His place is clearly in the bullpen, but that pen's in pretty good shape right now. Still, injuries, as we know far too well, happen pretty frequently, and there's still the hope that some desperate team has an Albers-shaped hole in their pen. The way this season has gone, it would be perfectly appropriate for Mark Prior to come out of nowhere and deliver in a critical spot for Boston. Here's hoping he gets the chance.