2003 - Mark Prior, Chicago Cubs
Stats: 18-6, 2.43 ERA, 245 K's, 3rd in National League Cy Young Award Voting
There is no doubt that in roughly five years, people will begin to forget the legend that was Mark Prior. And why shouldn't they? They man hasn't pitched since 2006, and has had more surgeries than Mike Hampton and former battery-mate Kerry Wood combined (see here for the full list). But for one season, he was the face of MLB's next generation of Aces.
In 2003, at a very green 22 years old, Prior stepped into the Cubs rotation and immediately became the most-dominate pitcher on staff. He mixed a mid-90's fastball - which had more movement than Tony LaRussa's bladder after a chugging contest - and a plus curve ball with some serious break. He baffled veterans. Made other young ones look stupid, and cruised through the regular season.
In 30 starts, he let up more than 4 earned runs twice. He struck out 245 batters in 211 innings, pitched 3 complete games, and after missing 3 starts in July, came back to go 10-1 with a 1.52 ERA and 95 K's in 82.2 IP in August and September. Dominance. He finished his first postseason with a 2.31 ERA and 18 K's in 23 innings. If the Bartman saga never happened, who knows what could have been?
Now, we all know the sob story that followed Dusty Baker's innings abuse with Prior - injuries, then more injuries, then more injuries, then a move to San Diego, then another injury...
Is it safe to say that Prior can be counted out? It seems that way. While he may eventually make a comeback, he'll never match the numbers he posted in 2003.