Column: Flashbacks of Mark Prior on tap as Chicago Cubs face Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Paul Skenes

Pittsburgh Pirates phenom Paul Skenes is scheduled to make his major-league debut Saturday afternoon at PNC Park, facing a Chicago Cubs lineup that has been scuffling the last two weeks.

Flashbacks to Mark Prior’s debut with the Cubs in 2002 are inevitable, and the Pirates hope Skenes can have the same kind of instant success — albeit with a much better ending.

Skenes, the No. 1 pick in the 2023 draft out of LSU, seemingly has everything a team would want to be the centerpiece of its rebuild, including a 102-mph fastball, a splitter-sinker combo pitch called the “splinker” and a celebrity girlfriend in gymnast/social media influencer Livvy Dunne, who is even more renowned than him.

Baseball thrives on creating new stars, and Skenes appears to be ready for his Instagram moment.

Skenes threw only 27 1/3 innings over seven starts for Triple-A Indianapolis but posted an 0.99 ERA with 45 strikeouts and looked as dominant as he was in college, at which he helped lead LSU to the 2023 College World Series championship. He has been compared to former college stars Prior and Washington’s Stephen Strasburg, who both also made quick MLB debuts because their talent was so extraordinary their respective teams felt the pitchers would be wasting time in the minors.

Prior was called up for a bad Cubs team that was 15-28 and 11 games out of first place. The hype that accompanied his arrival was unheard of in Chicago. Tribune baseball columnist Jerome Holtzman, then MLB’s historian, said: “I can’t think of any comparable situation. (In the past) you didn’t know (about players) until they got to the majors.”

Prior made his debut on May 22 at sold-out Wrigley Field against a weak-hitting Pirates team, allowing two runs on four hits over six innings in a 7-4 win. He struck out 10 and walked 2 while throwing 103 pitches.

“He’s as polished as any young man I’ve seen,” Cubs catcher Joe Girardi said afterward. “The other guy I think about who was very polished was Derek Jeter. I think this kid’s going to be fine. I don’t think it’s too much. I don’t think the media’s too much. I don’t think the expectations are too much.”

Prior made 19 starts in a strong rookie season, then turned into one of the game’s best pitchers in 2003, leading the Cubs to the National League Championship Series, in which they lost in seven games to the Florida Marlins. He lost a heartbreaking Game 6 when the Cubs were five outs from heading to their first World Series in 58 years. You might remember hearing about it.

A series of injuries derailed his career in 2004 and ’05, and by 2006 his career was over after 106 games. Prior remains an important player in Cubs history, but for reasons that can only be speculated about, he never lived up to his promise.

Skenes enters the scene with similar expectations and will face the Cubs in his first two starts, just as Prior faced the Pirates in his first two. It’s a good time to be matched up against the Cubs. Only a Yan Gomes infield hit Thursday prevented them from being no-hit by San Diego Padres starter Dylan Cease and two relievers, and the Cubs entered the series in Pittsburgh hitting .195 over their last 12 games with 109 strikeouts and a .610 OPS.

If Skenes dominates in his debut, it could call into question why the Cubs and White Sox can’t soon bring two of their studs up from the minors and let them learn at the major-league level.

The Cubs recently promoted Cade Horton, the seventh pick of the 2022 draft, to Triple-A Iowa and has averaged 11.7 strikeouts per nine innings with a 2.48 ERA over 26 games in the minors. The Cubs are limiting his innings — 20 1/3 over five starts — but he has shown he’s ready and could be promoted in the near future.

Drew Thorpe, a second-round pick of the New York Yankees in 2022, has a 1.10 ERA in four starts at Double-A Birmingham after the Sox acquired him from the Padres in spring training in the Cease deal. Thorpe also is being monitored closely with 35 2/3 innings over six starts.

With the Sox already out of contention, it would be easy for general manager Chris Getz to make the call to bring Thorpe to Chicago and give fans reason for optimism, as former GM Rick Hahn periodically did during the first rebuild with call-ups of Michael Kopech and other prospects.

Bryan Ramos was brought up last week from Birminghan because of Danny Mendick’s IL stint and already has opened eyes at third base. But Sox director of player development Paul Janish recently suggested the big-league team’s record won’t make the Sox rush anyone.

“(We’re) not letting some of those ulterior variables influence us with regards to certain guys in the development process,” he said.

Of course, neither Horton nor Thorpe comes with the same hype as Prior, Strasburg and Skenes, all considered “generational” talents.

When you have a fastball that averages 99.9 mph, as Skenes does, he might not have a whole lot of learning left to do in the minors.

The Cubs will get a chance Saturday to see what all the talk is about and then another Friday at Wrigley if Skenes stays on schedule.

So get out the Wayback Machine and set it to 2002.

Like the 17-year cicadas, these types of debuts don’t come around often.