Theo points out Cubs’ hot prospects could suffer Prior’s fate
BY GORDON WITTENMYER Staff Reporter December 12, 2013 8:57PM
Updated: December 13, 2013 7:58PM
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — If you paid attention during this week’s winter meetings, you might have spotted Mark Prior at some point in the background as Cubs officials networked in the lobbies and corridors of the Swan and Dolphin Resort.
In many ways, he’s part of the background of everything the Cubs do — and more often don’t do — during a long winter’s wait for the promise of top prospects and new dollars they believe will someday deliver them back to relevancy.
Fit, tanned and still just 33, the most polished, can’t-miss prospect of his generation attended the meetings as the newest member of the San Diego Padres front office at a time in his life he was supposed to be telling World Series stories and strengthening a Hall of Fame resume.
Instead, Prior is the ghost of foundations past that many on the dream-selling side of the Cubs’ operation would rather you ignore as construction timelines and budget promises get pushed back while ticket prices remain among the game’s highest.
The Cubs have some of the most elite hitting prospects in the game piling up in their farm system, and that is central to their marketing and justification for a third-year rebuilding process that included only the trade for a platoon outfielder (Justin Ruggiano) during the meetings.
But not even a baseball operations department firmly committed to its player-development plan will try to sell the idea that those top prospects will be the championship solution on the North Side when they arrive.
Team president Theo Epstein talked this week about the two “currencies” in baseball needed for lengthy championship windows: deep enough reserves of young major-league (or close) talent to make impact trades and/or “massive amounts of payroll flexibility.”
The Cubs have neither at this point, despite the promise of prospects Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.
“We have to guard against this perception that we believe that once our most talented prospects come up to the big leagues all of our problems are solved, because that’s not the way it works in baseball,” said Epstein, who highlighted the tough transition for most young players even when they get to the big leagues.
The last time the Cubs’ system got the level of praise it’s getting, Kerry Wood, Prior and Carlos Zambrano emerged as the pitching core that led the 2003 playoff team and the ’04 near miss.
Prior said he has found peace since the injuries that derailed his rocketing career, even after multiple comeback attempts that got him close to the majors but ultimately ended last summer with another shoulder injury at Class AAA Louisville.
The Cubs’ front office is well aware of his and Wood’s unique perspectives on hype, expectations and the fishbowl of Wrigley Field, having them talk with about a dozen prospects last winter at their inaugural rookie development camp.
Prior’s message was of focus on the field and understanding hype doesn’t define destiny.
“Things don’t always work out. Life’s not fair,” Prior said. “You’ve got to keep moving forward, no matter how great everything might be going or if you think things are going bad.
And if the scrutiny and distraction potential were big a decade ago?
“The hype … is part of the animal in baseball in today’s game,” Prior said. “It’s grown exponentially since [I debuted].”
Imagine the heat coming when this next group arrives after being the biggest marquee players in the organization since their draft days? And if the business side hasn’t stepped up with that “massive” flexibility?
“Let’s not think we reached the finish line just because we get a few prospects to the big leagues,” Epstein said. “It’s going to be a heck of a lot more interesting when it happens, but it doesn’t necessarily mean right away that all our players in their early 20s are going to be the cornerstones of a World Series club.”
NOTE: The Cubs on Thursday swapped fourth outfielders with the Marlins, trading lefty-hitting Brian Bogusevic for Justin Ruggiano, a right-handed power threat.