Tiny Tim

Tom Verducci with a great article on the mechanics of San Francisco Giant starter Tim Lincecum. He is fun to watch pitch. The article is painful to read for a Cubs fan, however, as it includes many cautionary tales that feature the North siders as the punchline.

For example, it includes the first dissenting opinion I've read about Mark Prior's mechanics.

Mark Prior is a classic example of a high-performing pitcher who was permitted to break down because of poor mechanics. Ironically, Prior was often hailed for his "flawless" mechanics when the Cubs drafted the righthander out of USC with the No. 2 pick in 2001, though that assessment seems to have been influenced by scouts' preference for his 6' 5", 225-pound body type. Studied closely, his mechanics included two severe red flags: 1) Prior lifted his throwing elbow higher than his shoulder before reaching the loaded position, increasing the stress on his elbow and shoulder; and 2) unlike Lincecum's dynamic late torso rotation, Prior rotated his hips and torso before getting to the loaded position. With the letters of Prior's jersey already facing the target, his arm could not simply "go along for the ride" -- the ride was over, so his arm had to generate all of its own power.

Prior went 41-23 over his first four seasons in the big leagues. During that time, in 2003, when Prior was on his way to a career-high 18 wins, [former Mets pitching coach Rick] Peterson gave a presentation to the Oakland scouting department about "certain red flags in a delivery that we can't do much about" as the A's prepared for the draft. The idea was to avoid sinking large signing bonuses into players with a high potential to break down. (Late picks, because of their lower cost, don't carry the same concern.)

One of Oakland's scouts, responding to Peterson's red-flag warnings, said, "Hey, that's what Prior does. Are you saying that we shouldn't draft a player like that?"

Replied Peterson, "No, not exactly. He's one of the best pitchers in the league right now, but what I am saying is, If he doesn't have maximum [shoulder] rotation, it will lead to injury. It's like slamming the brakes over and over. The brake pads are going to wear out until it's metal on metal."

Prior has suffered a series of shoulder injuries that have limited him to one win and nine starts in the three seasons since. Still only 27, he is out for the season -- again -- after surgery to repair a tear in his right shoulder. "Prior is almost all upper body," Chris Lincecum says. "You could cut his legs off and he would throw just as hard. I don't like to put my finger on players, but I've been doing this a long time. I've said, 'He's going to blow his elbow out' or 'His back will go out.' Sure enough, it happens, including Dice-K [Daisuke Matsuzaka], Jake Peavy, Prior. . . . I have a hard time enjoying the game. I'm sitting there criticizing the pitcher. It hurts to watch pitchers. Seventy percent of the pros have poor mechanics."

As the owner of a Mark Prior Cubs jersey, I'm still wistful for what could have been. It scares me to think that the Oakland A's were willing to trade Rich Harden to the Cubs given how much they rely on Rick Peterson's counsel. Is Harden simply the second coming of Prior, immensely talented, doomed to physical breakdown?

Prior isn't the only example of a Cubs high draft pick whose body broke down.

Bobby Brownlie was supposed to be Tim Lincecum. A 6-foot righthander from Rutgers who hit 97 mph on the gun, Brownlie was regarded as one of the top pitchers in the 2002 draft. Peterson was working as the A's pitching coach at the time. Just before the draft, Oakland G.M. Billy Beane gave Peterson videotapes of some 20 pitchers the A's were considering as draft picks and told him to break down each pitcher not by stuff and performance but by the biomechanics of their deliveries.

The previous winter Peterson had met Brownlie at a banquet and told him, "Hey, I hear you're great. Congratulations, I hear you're going to be a [first round] pick." But when he watched Brownlie on the tape Beane had given him, Peterson says, "I'm literally sick to my stomach. I'm going, 'This is so sad.' "

A few days later, when Beane asked Peterson what he thought of Brownlie, the pitching coach replied, "He has certain characteristics in his delivery that will lead to shoulder problems."

The Cubs took Brownlie with the 21st pick -- bypassing future big leaguers Matt Cain, Joe Blanton, Jon Lester and Jonathon Broxton -- and lavished him with a $2.5 million signing bonus. Within three years Brownlie could not throw any harder than the mid-80s, and minor league hitters were crushing his pitches. Chicago released him in March 2007. Brownlie spent much of last year playing independent league baseball and is now pitching for the Washington Nationals' Double A Harrisburg affiliate. In May '07 Brownlie told SNY.tv, "The major question about me is why my velocity has dipped in the past couple of years. . . . There's really no answer to it; we don't know what's going on."

The last poke in the eye to Cubs fans: Lincecum was drafted by the Cubs in the 48th round after his last season of high school baseball, when he was named Washington's 2003 Gatorade High School Player of the Year. He turned them down.