PEORIA, Ariz. — Rain rattled the tops of the skinny roofs that hung over the red dirt. A familiar face walked to a familiar spot — up the pitching mound — and then stood behind it.
Mark Prior watched another former Cub — Andrew Cashner, the bait used to acquire Anthony Rizzo — throw a bullpen session steps from the Padres clubhouse Thursday morning. He eyed minor leaguers whistling pitches through the damp air. As gloves thumped, he made suggestions.
Prior is back in a baseball uniform as his hometown Padres’ roving minor league pitching coordinator.
“Look, I’ve, unfortunately, for others — but fortunately, looking back — I have a lot of experiences that hopefully I can touch on, or at least relate to a lot of different kids,” Prior, now 34, said Thursday. “Whether it’s a first rounder to a kid that got signed out of indy ball to guys that are coming off surgery. I think I’ve had a lot of experiences in my career. Which I think will help me.”
He’s been Kris Bryant. The Cubs selected both Prior and the third-base prospect with the No. 2 overall pick, 12 years apart.
Any high pick comes with pressure, Prior said.
“You just have to go out there and do the best that you can, and you just have to learn how to accept it,” he said. “Now, easier said than done. I’ve lived that. I’ve made my mistakes coming in and having some pressure.”
The key, he said, is to focus on what you can control.
“I do recognize that that’s a lot harder once you try to put it into practice,” he said. “But everything from meeting him and talking to him and seeing how he’s handled himself, what he’s done in his short time, the Kris Bryants, and a couple of those other kids, they’ve put themselves in a position to be successful.
“I think for me, now being in a position on the development side, I think that’s all you can ask a kid.”
The Cubs have done that the right way, he said, and are “in this for long-term success.”
Prior was a symbol of the same thing when, after starting 19 games as a 21-year-old rookie, he put together one of the franchise’s great pitching seasons. In 2003, he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA, leading the Cubs to an NLCS berth derailed by Steve Bartman’s catch. Ironically, Moises Alou, who leapt for the ball, was named the Padres’ special assistant for player development this offseason.
Prior started 48 games over the next two seasons before being limited to nine in 2006. Arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder in April 2007 cost him the season and ended his Cubs career.
He never returned to the big leagues, attempting minor league comebacks before retiring in 2013 when he knew his right shoulder was “officially done.” Within five months, the Padres hired him as an assistant in the baseball operations department, where he learned amateur scouting, pro scouting and some player development.
“Our careers are over,” he said. “I think everybody that we have here realizes that and has humbled themselves to the fact that it’s not about us. It’s about them — and helping them maximize their talent and their career, whatever level that might be.“
Prior will spend the season flying from San Diego to the organization’s minor-league teams — and their complex in the Dominican Republic — sharing what he’s learned.
“I think I’ve had a lot of experiences in my career, which I think will help me,” he said. “People can say, ‘O.K., he’s not just talking about it. He’s actually done it.’”