Mark Prior has thrown eight innings in Triple-A Pawtucket since the Red Sox signed him to a minor league deal on May 2nd of this year. It was a throw-away deal, a what-if, the proverbial flyer on a guy who was good way back when. How far back when are we talking? Prior last pitched in the major leagues in 2006, back when a gallon of unleaded cost about eight cents. Since then he's been signed and released four times, twice by the Padres, once each by the Rangers and Yankees. The Red Sox are his fifth organization during that time. There's been a fair bit of free agency mixed in there as well.
Thing is, outside of his time with the Yankees, he's always been effective. The dude just can't stay healthy. He's had multiple arm and shoulder surgeries among other issues. It's to the point where I think Baseball Prospectus's injury database stopped updating their information on him because 1) breaking the database was a real possibility, and 2) when is this guy ever going to pitch in the majors again anyway?
Unexpectedly, that day might be coming sooner than any of us thought. (Or, as is the point of this article, it might not.) In those previously mentioned eight innings for Pawtucket, Prior has 19 strikeouts. That's more than two strikeouts per inning. Or, to put it another way, Prior gets as many strikeouts in one inning as Derek Lowe does in two games. Further beating this into the turf, 80 percent of a possible 24 outs came via the strikeout for Prior. Yes, it's Triple-A but, still, that's ridiculous. So you get it. Prior is striking out an ungodly amount of hitters. The Red Sox have to call him up, right? Like right now before he gets hurt again. Well, that's where things get difficult.It sure seems, based on what he's done with Pawtucket, that Prior could be effective out of the Red Sox bullpen. I mean, 19 Ks really are video game numbers. He may yet get that chance but the problems inherent in bringing him up become clear when looking at the Red Sox roster.
Bringing Prior up requires the Sox to drop someone off their 25 man and their 40 man rosters because both are full. If Prior is going to pitch in Boston he'll need a spot on both. That might be too insurmountable a hurdle for him to jump right now, even with his ridiculous strikeout rate.
Boston does have a few guys who you might consider at the bottom of the roster, guys who you might theoretically 'trade' for Prior, but the problem comes when you consider that moving them off the 40 man roster requires them to be passed through waivers, which means they can get claimed by any other team who wants to pick them up. Thus, the Red Sox are taking a risk, saying, in effect, having Mark Prior in our pen is valuable enough that we'll risk losing player X.
We could go down a list of those guys (Matt Albers comes to mind, as does Mauro Gomez). However, I'm writing this on Tuesday afternoon and the impending return of Cody Ross will require a roster move (Editor's note: the Red Sox DL'd Scott Podsednik). Moving Rich Hill to the 60 day DL remains option as well, but Hill might not be out that long, which would mean depriving the Sox of his services (potentially, assuming no set-backs) for up to a month. Is Mark Prior worth that? Maybe.
But what happens when Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford come back? The Sox are going to have to drop or move other players around at that point. Of course, there may have been trades and/or roster moves by then (both aren't due back for roughly a month), so that might be putting the cart before the horse, but you don't want to bring Prior up and then have to designated him for assignment two weeks later. What's the point of that?
What's more, it's not like the Red Sox need help in the bullpen. According to Fan Graphs WAR, the Sox have the eighth best bullpen since the season started and the fourth best in the last 30 days. If you ignore their awful first few weeks, which you can't do, but if you could, you'd have one of the best bullpens in the game.
So the Sox could just drop Gomez or drop/trade Albers to bring Prior up, but then if Prior gets hurt, the Sox have lost Gomez or Albers for likely little to nothing. The same goes true for any deal involving Kevin Youkilis.
Prior's stats in Triple-A have made him an intriguing guy at this point. There aren't many who have had it rougher than him and thus who are easier to root for either. Like just about every team Boston could always stand to add another good reliever, but the cost to do so in this case just might be too high. That cost combined with Mark Prior's health history (the guy could require surgery at almost literally any moment) makes things even more uncertain.
Things will start to sort themselves out the closer we get to the trade deadline. If Prior can keep up even a lesser version of his Triple-A production, he'll force his way in the Boston bullpen eventually one way or the other. But for now, even with a K/9 rate of 21.4 (it makes me sweat to even type that), we probably have to wait a bit longer for the Mark Prior era to begin.