TAMPA -- The corner locker in a big-league clubhouse is the perfect location for a player who enjoys sitting back and observing.
Here to win a job in the club's bullpen, Prior knows there is every chance he may open the season in Triple-A. And that's OK by him, as long as his troubled right shoulder stays intact and allows him what probably is this one last chance to finish a career on his terms, and not those of his shoulder.
Adding a touch of nostalgia to the spring is that Prior is reunited with new Yankees pitching coach Larry Rothschild. The two worked together for five seasons in Chicago, nearly helping to push the Cubs into the World Series in 2003.
"So far, he's been good," Rothschild said. "Arm-wise, he's feeling good. ... We need to go in progression to build him up.
"The bullpen is where he's going to be, I think. It's what his arm can handle."
In two spring innings so far, Prior has allowed neither a hit nor a run. He's struck out three, and walked one.
"If he's right, he's going to win some games for the Yankees this year," one big-league scout who saw Prior pitch last summer said.
From his perch at the corner locker after another morning of work recently, Prior was pleased with the way things are going. His latest comeback started in earnest last summer pitching for an independent league team in Fullerton, Calif., where he showed enough that the Rangers signed him to a minor-league deal. He pitched one minor-league inning in a Triple-A game near season's end, and then one inning in a minor-league playoff game.
"I think it's there," he said. "Like everybody, there are things I need [work on]. I'm trying to find the release point on my breaking ball."
"I feel like the ball's coming out of my hand free," he said. "I'm not pushing it."
Since cranking it up in Fullerton last summer, Prior said he's throwing the ball "a lot better. I'm more efficient. I'm not on top of the ball."
Prior, still just 30, has not pitched in the majors since 2006. Rothschild believes his shoulder has never been the same since his '03 collision with infielder Marcus Giles. Then, in '05, he suffered a compression fracture in his elbow when he was drilled by a line drive comebacker by Colorado's Brad Hawpe.
"Not to get melodramatic, but after '05, I was just battling to get out there every fifth day in '06," said Prior, who made only nine starts that year. "Then, '07 was a nightmare [exploratory surgery by Dr. James Andrews revealed structural damage to the shoulder]."
He could have packed it in -- he's earned nearly $13 million during his career, according to baseballreference.com -- but, well, a pitcher pitches. Until, at least, he no longer can. And despite his checkered injury history, Prior still wasn't ready for a life of "what could have been?".
His time on the mound last summer confirmed that in his mind.
And where he once pitched in All-Star Games and NL Championship Series' (2003), now he gauges his progress differently.
"I saw that, steadily, things were getting better and better," he said. "When I faced St. Louis' farm system in the playoff game, St. Louis always has great hitters and I held my own. I was thinking, 'Hey, I can do this.'"
This spring, he's still thinking the same thing.
"I think that my starting days are definitely on the back burner," he said. "From what I know of my shoulder, and from what they know of my shoulder, this is my best situation to come back."
Sunblock Day? Surely, you jest. More great weather this spring. Keep the Banana Boat well-stocked.
Likes: Mark Prior as healthy as we've seen him in several years. I don't know if his shoulder is going to last, but it would be a nice chapter in his career if he can stay on the field and pitch out of the Yankees' bullpen. ... Our Ear on Baseball podcast featuring C. Trent Rosecrans with two members of The Baseball Project, Scott McCaughey (most famous for his work with REM) and Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3). The Baseball Project has just released their second disc and will be touring, including a handful of Cactus League ballpark shows the latter half of March. Good stuff musically and good listening. You can get it here. ... Clarence Clemons, sax man for the E Street Band, playing on a new Lady Gaga song. What a combination they must have been on recording day. ... As far as fast food pizza goes, I'll take Papa John's.
Dislikes: That I left Tampa right before a special theatrical screening of Smokey and the Bandit at which Burt Reynolds was to appear. Now what a hoot that would have been. No word whether the Trans-Am was going to show.
Rock 'N' Roll Lyric of the Day:
"James Dean in that Mercury '49
"Junior Johnson runnin' through the woods of Caroline
"Even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am
"All gonna meet down at the Cadillac Ranch"
-- Bruce Springsteen, Cadillac Ranch