Prior reflects on career, transitions to front office
Former All-Star embraces challenge, will begin scouting at all levels
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It essentially took one conversation to persuade Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch that Mark Prior had not only moved on from his star-crossed career, but that he was prepared to embrace the challenge of working in the team's front office.
"What I've noticed from him, and I bet that he was like this as a player, is he really buys in to whatever he's doing at that time," Hinch said. "He's all in. His curiosity in how the [front office] engine operates can't be overstated."
There was something else that resonated with Hinch.
"I love the fact that Mark wants to work," Hinch said.
Prior, who retired from baseball last fall, has been on the job with the Padres for several months as an assistant in the team's baseball operations department.
Prior has done so with little-to-no fanfare, which is perfectly fine with him. He doesn't have an office and doesn't want one. He eschewed the title of "special assistant," like others have had bestowed upon them after stepping away from the game and into a team's front office.
He's an assistant, period. And he's there to work.
"I don't want to say it's a floating job, but it's a chance for me to learn all aspects of the operation away from the field," Prior said. "I know what goes on there on the field and with the coaches, but I've never really had an understanding of what happens in the office and behind the scenes."
After spending the better part of 12 years either pitching or trying to work his way back from a variety of injuries to his right shoulder and arm, Prior, 33, officially stepped away from the game after last season and stepped into another opportunity -- one that, like pitching, has presented its own challenges.
Consider it total immersion into baseball operations.
"Hopefully it's a little bit of everything," Prior said. "Amateur coverage, college guys. I will do some high school games, pro coverage, I'll see our affiliates, shadow some guys here in games and the back fields and generally get an idea of how the system works.
"So far, it's been great for me. I'm having a lot of fun learning."
And it's far different from his previous life in baseball, one that saw Prior win 18 games with the Cubs as a 22-year-old in 2003, when he finished third in the National League Cy Young Award vote. But he fractured his elbow in '05, when he was hit by a line drive and then eventually needed reconstructive surgery in '07 on his right shoulder for a torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule.
A year later, after he signed a Minor League deal with the Padres, Prior -- who is a San Diego native -- needed surgery, this time after tearing his shoulder capsule yet again.
Yet, Prior kept trying to pitch, though it wasn't for the expressed intent of reaching the big leagues again. He pitched for the independent league Orange County Flyers. He had had Minor League stints with the Rangers, Yankees, Red Sox and Reds as well.
"After my stint here, I didn't want to have any regrets and wanted to do everything that I could to get back. Forget the big leagues ... I just wanted to get back on the field in general. I made some progress, but it really came down to a physical thing," Prior said.
Prior made seven appearances last summer with the Reds' Triple-A affiliate in Louisville before finally shutting it down.
"I was throwing the ball pretty decently, but I hurt my arm again and wasn't feeling great at the end of summer. I put a soft deadline on it and realized that if there was a time to make a transition, it was better to do it then, as opposed to getting all the way here in the spring, realize it and then have to sit around all year," Prior said.
Enter the Padres, Prior's hometown team. General manager Josh Byrnes reached out to him in August and he eventually joined the team in December, in time to be involved with the team during the Winter Meetings in Orlando.
"What's kind of been an eye-opener for me is the amount of players the guys in baseball operations can easily recall," Prior said. "As a player, you are in your own bubble and you know your team. But the guys in baseball ops have a rolodex of players in their heads that they can easily recall."
"I sat in the back of the room at the Winter Meetings and they're throwing out these scenarios about all these players. I couldn't believe it."
The Padres aren't being coy about throwing as much as they can at Prior, who has spent time in Arizona sitting with Hinch, Byrnes and assistant general manager Josh Stein during games.
"He's drawn to learn as many facets of the front office as he can," Hinch said. "We are going to give it to him, too. It will entail everything from going to a high school game to scout a player, not knowing a thing about the player. He'll learn the rules we have to account for, the timing of the decisions we make, how the Draft is formed, how the Major League roster is whittled down to 25.
"I think he's curious about all of it."
This is not to say, of course, that Prior hasn't denied himself a moment of reflection from time to time about his previous life in baseball.
"I think now that I've been done and taken a step back, I can look back on it and remember the good times," Prior said. "I think we get wrapped up so much in wins, losses and everything else that we can lose sight of a lot of the benefits the game provides.
"I have been able to travel the world, live in some great cities, play at the highest level of this sport, and I've been to the lowest level, too. It taught me things as a person. I went through a stretch where things were really negative with injuries and stuff. But, for me, it was, 'How do you keep rolling on? How do you come out of it on the back end?' That's the decision you have to make. Are you going to dwell on it ... or move on from it?"
That wasn't something Prior was always equipped to do, he said.
"One of the things I think you have to do in this game is look in the mirror and really take ownership of who you are," Prior said. "For me, the injuries kept happening consecutively and that made me edgy. I think this is more of who I really am. Eventually, everyone gets knocked down. At first, I didn't respond the best way that I probably could. But that's life. You learn from your mistakes."
He's much happier now, and his new job gives Prior the chance to spend more time with his family: his wife, Heather, and their three children, Amanda, Caitlin and Matthew.
"I can't complain," Prior said the other day, watching Padres' pitchers throw in the bullpen area at the team's Spring Training facility. "It is 70 degrees here in Arizona and I'm here walking around watching these guys do something special."