Long before Theo Epstein took his curse breaking talents to Chicago, helping to exorcise the demons of the Cubs’ past as the organization secured its biggest W in a century, it was two young pitchers who were supposed to fulfill that promise. I could write separate pieces on Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, but to me they’ll always be linked together in history, so it feels right to have them go as a tandem.
Kerry Wood donned the Cubbie Blue first. He was the first pitcher off the board in the 1995 draft, taken with the fourth pick behind other future major leaguers Darin Erstad, Ben Davis, and Jose Cruz. It’s not surprising that scouts liked Wood; Baseball America was correct in another respect: how quickly he would make the majors despite being a pitcher drafted still two weeks before his 18th birthday:
Wood has an exceptional arm. Not only is the velocity on his fastball equal to that of any pitcher in the draft, but it has heavy, late boring action. His curve also has a tight rotation, giving him two well above-average pitches that he throws with a minimum effort. Scouts say Wood is so advanced that he should be ready for the big leagues faster than all but one or two college pitchers.
This turned out to be almost exactly correct. Two advanced college pitchers, Brett Tomko and Matt Morris, debuted before Kerry Wood did. Indeed, BA’s report only missed the very nitpicky fact that Ariel Prieto (25 at the time), and two low-round relievers, Mike Judd and Jeff Wallace, also beat Wood to the bigs. The Cubs were not pleased when, two days after the team took Wood in the draft, Grand Prairie coaches let him pitch both games of a doubleheader, throwing a total of 175 pitches. Regardless, Wood’s path to the majors was relatively unimpeded and after two full seasons in the minors, he was called up at the start of the 1998 season.
Wood had a rough initial foray into the majors; his third professional start, he was knocked out of the box when the Dodgers scored a touchdown and the extra point in the second inning. That inning featured Wood completing a bingo card of pitching horrors by giving up bases by hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, wild pitch, and balk.
It did little to faze Wood, who won his next four starts allowing just two runs in 29 innings, striking out 50 batters against just six walks. That stretch includes, of course that game, Wood’s 20-strikeout classic, which people still remember quite vividly and fondly decades later.
Wood didn’t strike out 20 batters in a game the rest of the year (or ever), but the fabulous pitching continued and he went 10-4 the rest of the season with a 3.29 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 139 1/3 innings. Unfortunately, his year came to an abrupt halt in August. Due to elbow soreness, Wood was shut down for the final month of the season, brought back only to pitch a game in the NLDS against the Braves. After injuring the elbow further in his first spring training start in 1999, Wood underwent Tommy John surgery, missing the entire season. He appeared to be recovering quickly, well ahead of schedule, and he started his rehab in the minors less than a year after going under the knife, making it back to the Cubs by early May of 2000. Wood’s 2000 season had its high points, but his control, never his strong point, disappeared for long stints.
Wood’s 2001 got off to a rough start, but he was generally back to his normal form by the end of the season, finishing with a 3.36 ERA and 3.51 FIP in 174 1/3 innings over 28 starts. Debuting in August was another young Cubs starter, Carlos Zambrano, who would be a mainstay of the rotation for the next decade. Also joining the Cubs was the second protagonist of this trip through time, Mark Prior.
Like Wood, Prior was the first pitcher taken in the draft, falling to the Cubs in the second spot when the Twins passed on him in order to draft the hometown hero — and less expensive — Joe Mauer. To Prior, the thought of joining a rotation with Kerry Wood was “mind boggling.” Naturally, the Cubs were pleased as punch to come away with him.
“He’s got probably the best college command I’ve seen in the past 10 years,” Cubs scouting director John Stockstill said. “We felt Kerry Wood was a can’t-miss. Turns out he was. We feel Prior’s close to that.”
As a college arm, he was believed to be just about ready to pitch in the majors, a belief which turned out to be true as Prior didn’t even make the two month mark in the minors and was called up to the Cubs in late May of 2002. In 19 starts, Prior posted a 3.32 ERA and a 3.16 FIP, with 147 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings.
Contrary to what the Cubs had come to expect over the years, in 2003 it looked as if the team’s master plan was actually going to work out. Prior went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA and a 7.8 WAR, that last number leading the majors, just edging out Pedro Martinez and Roy Halladay. Wood, along with Zambrano, were both All-Star level, at 4.2 and 4.7 WAR, respectively.
This is where the story strays from the triumphant path to Cooperstown.
Wood’s two years of good health were ended with a triceps injury in early 2004. He returned for the second half of the season, with mixed results. In 2005, he suffered from shoulder pain and control issues, eventually resulting in him being moved to the bullpen in late summer, a switch that initially looked successful.
All the concerns over Wood’s control and recurring arm problems have vanished into thin air since he’s taken on his new role. Speculation that Wood would come out and start walking batters right out of the box were apparently premature; he has five walks in nine innings, none of which have hurt him. Likewise, predictions that Wood would be damaging his shoulder by continuing to pitch the final two months instead of being shut down immediately also appears to be guesswork by amateur doctors.
Wood only pitched in two more games before his season ended due to shoulder surgery.
In 2006, he got to a late start thanks to unrelated knee surgery, debuting with the Cubs in May. Three weeks later, his season ended due to a torn rotator cuff. He never started another game in the majors. Wood accepted the Cubs offer to bring him back as a reliever for the 2007 season, ditched the slider, and spent the next five years as a solid, though occasionally erratic, piece out of the bullpen. After a sojourn with the Yankees and Indians, he returned to Chicago to finish his career with the Cubs. After walking 11 batters in 10 appearances in 2012, Wood announce his retirement after one final strikeout, a month before his 35th birthday.
Mark Prior’s decline was even less gentle than Wood’s. He missed the first couple months of the 2004 with an Achilles injury and failed to match his 2003 performance on his return. A Brad Hawpe liner cost Prior a month of the 2005 season and a sore shoulder and oblique muscle strain ruined his 2006 season.
He missed the 2007 season due to shoulder surgery and the Cubs non-tendered him at the end of the season. The Padres signed Prior for the 2008 season and when he was unable to pitch, to a minor league deal for the 2009 season.
2010 took Prior first to independent ball and then a single appearance for the Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Oklahoma City RedHawks. Prior made final comeback attempts with the Yankees, then the Red Sox, and then finally the Reds in 2013. After the 2013 season, Prior announced his retirement, at the age of 33, more than seven years after his final appearance in the majors.
So, what could have been? Pitchers are inherently riskier than hitters, but even by the normal standards of pitcher fragility, Prior and Wood proved unfortunate. Let’s crank up ZiPS and put 2003 into the DeLorean, to capture a fragment of what could have been after that one magical year when everything that should have gone right actually did.
Wood’s occasionally spotty control always caused ZiPS to view his outlook slightly askance. The Wood we got isn’t really all that different from the Wood ZiPS thought we should get — there was just a lot less of him and in a different package. ZiPS saw the walks always holding Wood back and the increase in offense towards the end of his projected career does a good bit to hide some of the decline that ZiPS saw. Still, 179 wins and 26.1 WAR is a perfectly respectable career for a longtime, number two starter, and even if that’s Johnny Sain rather than Warren Spahn, it’s better than a prayer for rain.
Now Prior, on the other hand, ZiPS saw as having a good chance, if he had remained healthy, of being an elite pitcher over the course of the next decade:
He came up so early and achieved success so quickly that unlike most top pitchers, ZiPS saw his chance of actually getting better as stronger than the case for regression for a number of years. He still needed a lot to go his way for a podium trip sometime around 2026 — ZiPS never projected him to have a 50/50 shot of a 200-inning season ever again — but that’s the line of a poor man’s Pedro Martinez, and that’s no insult.
The Wood/Prior generation wasn’t meant to be. Things eventually did go right for the Cubs, but a World Series ring would not be the cherry on the top of either pitcher’s career, careers once so bright, that inspired so many a Cubbie dream.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.