PHILADELPHIA -- Somewhere between the 2013 MLB draft and the December trade that sent him from the Houston Astros to the Philadelphia Phillies, Mark Appel lost the front-of-the-rotation glow that defines starting pitchers who are selected with the No. 1 overall pick.
He is only 24 years old, yet expectations have already been lowered from otherworldly to relatively modest. Talent evaluators who once gushed about his potential now question everything from his killer instinct to the deception (or lack thereof) on his fastball. In parts of three minor league seasons, Appel is 16-11 with a 5.12 ERA, a 1.44 WHIP and 280 hits allowed in 253 innings pitched. Numbers like that sure have a way of putting a damper on the industry buzz.
But with change, hope springs eternal. Appel has a new home, and he's about to find out if a fresh start can give his career a needed shot of adrenaline.
Appel, a former Stanford All-American, received the benefit of a clean slate last month when the Astros sent him to the Phillies as part of a seven-player trade for closer Ken Giles. He'll try to reinvent himself in a city that's not known for its patience, as part of a franchise that's in full-scale rebuild mode and should give him the freedom to progress and take his lumps.
The Phillies invited Appel, outfielders Nick Williams and Tyler Goeddel, pitcher Jake Thompson and several other prospects to town this week for their annual Prospect Education Program. The minor leaguers attended a 76ers game, took a field trip to the MLB Network Studios in New Jersey and received a tutorial on preparation and professionalism from former Phillies ace Roy Halladay.
They also met the local media, and Appel attracted the biggest crowd of anyone in the room. He gave sincere, thoughtful answers to some tough questions, many of which revolved around his failure to meet expectations since the Astros signed him for a $6.35 million bonus. Appel, who is represented by agent Scott Boras, has been the focus of extra scrutiny since he spurned an offer from the Pirates in the 2012 draft and returned to Stanford to get his degree in management science and engineering.
"Honestly, I try not to even pay attention to it," he said. "It started before I was in pro ball. I went back to school for my senior year and I was labeled 'greedy.' I got picked 1-1 and it was 'high expectations.' Then I struggled in the minors and I've been labeled a bust. And now I've been traded to the Phillies. It's been one thing after another after another. It's part of the territory."
The Phillies, who are basically back to ground zero after posting a major-league-worst 63-99 record last season, will begin spring training with a projected rotation of Aaron Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and offseason acquisitions Jeremy Hellickson and Charlie Morton in the first four spots. If Appel comes out dealing, he'll have a chance to win the fifth spot. More likely, Vincent Velasquez and Adam Morgan will duke it out for the No. 5 job in Clearwater, Florida, and Appel will make his debut with his new organization as a member of the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
"I don't show emotion when I'm on the mound. But I have a fire deep inside me as a competitor, where I basically look at the guy in the box and say, 'I'm better than you and I'm going to show it.' Do I have that competitive edge? Absolutely." Mark Appel
There's obviously a lot to like about Appel. At 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, he looks the part of a staff ace. He throws a fastball in the 94-95 mph range, flashes a wipeout slider and complements the two pitches with a plus changeup. To this point, his biggest problem has been an inability to carry those weapons from one start to the next with any degree of consistency. Appel has posted a so-so 2.63 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the minors and doesn't seem to put away hitters with the regularity that his stuff or reputation would suggest.
"He's just an enigma wrapped around a mystery," said one scout. "Maybe the fresh start is what he needs. Or maybe he really is the guy with the 5-plus ERA."
Another veteran scout envisions Appel, in a best-case scenario, as a No. 4 or 5 workhorse who'll throw 180-200 innings, log an ERA in the neighborhood of 4.00 and maybe win 12 games a season. Right or wrong, Appel has been slapped with a label as lacking in toughness.
"He's a nice kid," the scout said. "Honestly, you'd want him to marry your daughter. He's that respectful. I think he's too nice, personally."
On this issue, Appel respectfully demurs.
"I don't think being nice is a sign of weakness," Appel said. "If anything, it can be seen as a sign of strength -- knowing that you don't have to come off as this fake tough guy to try and gain respect from your teammates or the opponent.
"I don't show emotion when I'm on the mound. But I have a fire deep inside me as a competitor, where I basically look at the guy in the box and say, 'I'm better than you and I'm going to show it.' Do I have that competitive edge? Absolutely."
From a historical perspective, the results are mixed for college starters picked first overall in the draft. David Price has lived up to the hype, and Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg are off to impressive starts. Andy Benes and Tim Belcher both pitched 14 seasons in the majors and won a combined 301 games. Kris Benson and Ben McDonald are a notch or two below that, while Paul Wilson never had a chance to flourish because of injuries. The quintessential worst-case scenario unfolded in Pittsburgh with Bryan Bullington, who went 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA in four big league stops after the Pirates chose him first overall in the 2002 draft.
Will Appel ultimately turn out more like Benes, Bullington or something in between? He's fortunate enough to have the time and talent to craft his own story.
"I know I have the ability to be a consistent, dominant pitcher," he said. "That's what I'm working towards, and that's what I believe I'll be. I remember the really good games I've had, and I know that can be the norm. I've only scratched the tip of the iceberg."
On a cold January day in Philadelphia, the resolute tone in Mark Appel's voice reflected his confidence in what lies ahead. Doubters abound. But he's convinced there are a lot more good days than bad days yet to come.