December 2010

Prior doesn’t blame Dusty for his arm woes

NEW YORK — There have been a lot of theories for why Mark Prior‘s arm became too fragile to live up to the incredible hype he carried into his Major League career. 

They talked about how he delivered pitches with that dreaded inverted ‘W’ (where your elbows lift above and beyond the level of your shoulders). They mentioned scapular loading (when pitchers pinch their shoulder blades together). They chalked it up to bad luck. 
And, perhaps most of all, they blamed Dusty Baker
Baker, now skipper of the Reds, managed Prior with the Cubs from 2003-06. In ’03, the year the Cubs were one win away from reaching the World Series, Prior was 23 and as good as any pitcher in baseball. But perhaps too young to pitch in 211 1/3 innings in the regular season, then 23 1/3 more in the playoffs. 
Prior, of course, succumbed to an inhuman amount of arm troubles thereafter, to the point where he hasn’t appeared in a Major League game since 2006 (and just one Minor League inning since then — this past September). Even he can’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong. 
But he’s not putting the blame on Baker. 
“Dusty is a manager who got hired to win ballgames, and Dusty went out and managed to win ballgames,” he told me in a phone interview recently. “I don’t fault Dusty. I was 21, 22 years old in the heat of that. I wouldn’t have changed anything about that, either. I wouldn’t have taken myself out. And a lot of those games, I argued to stay in a lot of those games, because I knew what it meant to that team and what we had a chance to do. I didn’t expect to turn around and start having issues.”
After frustrating setback after frustrating setback, Prior got back on the mound late in the 2010 season by pitching against a low-grade level of competition in the independent league. Then, he pitched one inning for the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate before signing a Minor League contract with the Yankees.  
Prior was picking between the Rangers and Yankees this offseason, but chose New York because he felt the makeup of their bullpen gave him a better shot to pitch in the big leagues again. 
Right now, that’s all he’s thinking about.  
“That’s my first goal, is to get back to the big leagues, earn my way back,” he said. “I don’t expect to get handed anything and know that I’m not going to get handed anything. So I expect to earn my way back to the big leagues, and then once I’m there, go out there and pitch the way I know how to pitch. And try to help the Yankees win ballgames.  
“I know that sounds cliche, but definitely, where I’ve been and the point in my career, where I’m at now, for me the ultimate goal is just to get out there and win.”
I’ll have more from Prior on in a couple of weeks. 
— Alden Gonzalez

More on pitchers: Here’s why, considering the circumstances, the Royals did pretty good in their Zack Greinke trade; and here’s why the Rays are right to shop Matt Garza

And here’s a story on the state of African-Americans in the Majors. 

Some notable additions to the free-agent pool

All the Hot Stove attention, of course, is drawn towards
free-agent targets Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth, and possible
trade chips like Zack Greinke and Adrian Gonzalez. But not every team is
willing to hand out nine-figure salaries or unload their farm
systems. Every team, however, has a couple million to spare for a potential
bargain pickup.

And that’s what makes this year’s non-tender list so intriguing.

After baseball’s non-tender deadline came and went on Thursday night, 52 players were added to the free-agent pool. Here’s the gist: A player who is under club control — meaning he doesn’t have a set contract and hasn’t reached six years of service time — and is not tendered a contract by the deadline hits free agency.

Most of the time, clubs don’t tender a player a contract because they don’t want to pay him what the Basic Agreement forces them to (no less than 20 percent of a player’s salary from the previous season can be cut), or because they’re worried about what he’ll get in arbitration. The most famous non-tender signing, perhaps, is David Ortiz by the Red Sox in 2002. And last year, the Nationals got a bargain when they signed closer Matt Capps after he was non-tendered by the Pirates.

This year, the opportunity to strike gold with non-tenders seems plentiful. Here are some of the more-notable names (listed by 2011 age) …

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Bobby Jenks, RH-RP, 30
2010: 4.44 ERA, 1.367 WHIP, 27-31 SV, 55 G
Career: 3.40 ERA, 1.206 WHIP, 173-199 SV, 329 G

Jenks became perhaps the most notable non-tender on Thursday, when the White Sox decided they weren’t willing to give their long-time closer a raise from his $7.5 million 2010 salary. Jenks has had back-to-back down years since putting up a 2.63 ERA and converting 30 saves in ’08. Now, he joins a free-agent crop of closers that boasts Rafael Soriano at the top, but then drops off rather considerably with guys like Kevin Gregg, Brian Fuentes, Kerry Wood, Trevor Hoffman and Frank Francisco. Expect Jenks, who has made no less than 52 appearances since 2006 and put up a 2.70 ERA from 2007-08, to get a fair share of interest, and perhaps even sign an affordable multi-year deal.   

Russell Martin, C, 28
2010: .248/.347/.332, 5 HR, 26 RBI, 97 G
Career: .272/.365/.396, 54 HR, 300 RBI, 667 G

It wasn’t too long ago that Martin was considered one of the top catchers in the game. But after hitting .286 with a .380 on-base percentage, one Gold Glove and 32 home runs from 2007-08, Martin has struggled the last two years. He hit just .250 in 142 games while battling a bad back in ’09. Then, last year, he hit .248 in 97 games before being deemed out for the year with a broken right hip in early August. The market for free-agent catchers started rather deep but is quickly thinning, and about six teams have reportedly showed interest in Martin. Hard to see him as anything more than a platoon mate right now, though.

Edwin Encarnacion, 3B, 28
2010: .244/.305/.482, 21 HR, 51 RBI, 96 G
Career: .258/.336/.453, 100 HR, 337 RBI, 652 G

The Athletics made Encarnacion a free agent weeks after they claimed him off waivers from the Blue Jays, mainly because they wanted to keep Kevin Kouzmanoff on board and because they’re still reportedly going after Adrian Beltre. Encarnacion is not very good defensively (a -1.5 UZR last year, according to, and he doesn’t really hit for average. But he can drive the ball out of the ballpark and could be a serviceable everyday player. When given 582 plate appearances in 146 games in ’08, he hit 26 home runs. And in 139 games in ’07, he hit .289 with 16 home runs. Perhaps he can be a backup plan for the Red Sox if they don’t resign Beltre. General manager Theo Epstein is more comfortable with Kevin Youkilis playing first base. 

Jack Cust, DH/OF, 32
2010: .272/.395/.438, 13 HR, 52 RBI, 112 G
Career: .245/.378/.452, 102 HR, 300 RBI, 603 G

The A’s also dumped Cust, who made $2.65 million in 2010 and would’ve likely doubled his 2011 salary through arbitration. Cust is sure to draw a lot of interest. He’s a left-handed hitter who averaged 28 homers and 76 RBIs from 2007-09, and even though his power numbers diminished this past season, he did hit for a career-best batting average while starting the vast majority of his games as a designated hitter. Cust can also play both outfield corners. Problem: He’s a .182 hitter with no home runs in 58 career plate appearances as a pinch-hitter.

Chien-Ming Wang, RH-SP, 31
2010: N/A
Career: 55-26, 4.16 ERA, 109 G (104 GS)

Remember when Wang was a back-to-back 19-game winner and put up a 3.67 ERA from 2006-07? That seems like a lot longer than three years ago. Wang wound up making just 15 starts in 2008 and hasn’t pitched in the Majors since July 4, 2009. Wang didn’t even pitch in the Minors in 2010 while recovering from shoulder surgery. He won’t get anything more than a Minor League deal, and shoulder surgery is a tough thing to come back from — much tougher than Tommy John. But who knows? It’s worth a shot.   

Keep your eye on these guys, too: George Sherrill (formerly of the Dodgers), Hideki Okajima (Red Sox), J.P. Howell (Rays), Matt Diaz (Braves), Tony Gwynn Jr. (Padres), Ryan Rowland-Smith (Mariners) and Dustin Nippert (Rangers). 

— Alden Gonzalez  

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