Editor's note: This story originally ran in June 2017, before Mark Appel made his decision to step away from baseball.
ALLENTOWN, Pa. -- Now that the neighbors have gone home, the catered spread has been picked over and the first round of the MLB draft is complete, the top picks are free to exhale and revel in the high points. They'll save the video of commissioner Rob Manfred calling their names on live TV and savor the memory of that emotional hug with mom and dad at the height of the watch party.
The hard part begins once the contract is signed and the minor league debut awaits. That's when reality sets in and the hot prospect learns that hype and a seven-figure bonus count for only so much.
Mark Appel is mindful of the challenges each day as a member of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs' rotation. Coca-Cola Park in Allentown sits about 60 miles from Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, but it seems farther away when the Phillies are recalling Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Ben Lively to fill holes in their rotation and Appel is throwing a bullpen session beneath a giant fluorescent image of Ferrous, the male half of the IronPigs' mascot tandem.
It has been four years since the Houston Astros, Appel's hometown team, picked the Stanford alumnus No. 1 overall -- leaving the Chicago Cubs to swoop in and take University of San Diego third baseman Kris Bryant with the second pick. While Bryant has a World Series ring, a National League MVP trophy, a Rookie of the Year award and a growing endorsement portfolio, Appel is in Triple-A working on fastball command and learning the value of patience at age 25.
"Possibly it's just naiveté when I was younger, but when you get drafted, you think you're going to have this perfect career," Appel said. "You think, 'Big leagues by 22 or 23, then free agency by 29.' I'm such a planner and analyzer. I was like, 'OK, this is the course I'm setting for myself.' Obviously, that hasn't happened, so there's kind of a redefinition of what success looks like."
Appel's career is a cautionary tale for elite prospects who think everything is going to come easily. After the Pittsburgh Pirates selected him with the eighth pick in the 2012 draft, Appel decided to return to Stanford for his senior year. The strategy worked nicely when the Astros picked him No. 1 and Appel agreed to a $6.35 million bonus with the help of his adviser, Scott Boras. But the three years since have included enough setbacks to test Appel's resolve and his character.
The 2014 season began with an appendectomy and bottomed out when Appel logged a 10.35 ERA with Lancaster in the high-A California League. He persevered and made it to Double-A ball before putting together a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League.
In 2015, Appel reached Triple-A and played in the All-Star Futures Game, only to be traded to the Phillies in December in a seven-player deal that brought closer Ken Giles to Houston.
Last year was essentially a washout because of injuries. Appel missed time with shoulder problems, underwent surgery to remove bone spurs in his right elbow and threw a total of 38 1/3 innings before shutting it down in June.
Based on the numbers, this year is a work in progress. Appel's strikeout-to-walk ratio is hovering around 1-to-1, and his ERA swelled to 7.59 in his first nine starts before he showed signs of a turnaround in late May.
"Even though there are struggles and failures, there's never reason to lose hope. There's always a reason to press forward and keep persevering and working hard." Mark Appel
Understandably, the reviews from scouts are less than glowing. Appel still throws his fastball in the 91-94 mph range. But his name no longer adorns top prospect lists, and projections of his big league ceiling have grown more modest.
Two scouts who follow the Phillies' system told ESPN.com that they think Appel might benefit from a move to the bullpen, where it would be easier for him to harness his delivery in short bursts rather than increments of five or six innings. Andrew Miller, Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar are among the first-round picks who found success as relievers after stalling as starters, so that's one potential option.
"He's a big, physical guy, and he's got a decent arm, but he really struggles with command," an AL scout said. "He's not able to repeat his delivery, and I think that's one of the more significant sources to his issues. He struggles to do anything with any shred of consistency, and that has kind of a ripple effect on his performance, stuff and ability to command a baseball.
"Maybe the stuff plays up as a bullpen guy, and he doesn't have to command it as much. I think at some point, he will get an opportunity somewhere to pitch in the big leagues, but I don't necessarily know if he's going to establish himself as a mainstay on anybody's roster. I hope I'm wrong."
At the moment, the Phillies' player development people continue to focus on getting Appel right as a starter. They understand the burden he has lugged around as a former top pick on a deliberate developmental track, and one of their objectives is to free his mind so his body will follow.
"We want him to be a major league starter," Phillies farm director Joe Jordan said. "That's our goal. It doesn't have to be top of the rotation. He just needs to be one of five. As he has success, where he fits in the rotation can be defined later.
"It's been a challenge. I saw him as an amateur, and I saw the things the Pirates and Astros and a lot of other people in baseball liked. Mark is a smart guy who's probably overthought things way too much, which isn't totally uncommon. But I believe now more than ever that he has a handle on where he's at, and we have a handle on what he needs from us and where we need to direct him. I think we're on an uptick. Good things are starting to happen."
Even in the upper minors, playing in a gem of a Triple-A ballpark, Appel lives a different life from Bryant, Jon Gray, Aaron Judge and the other members of that 2013 first-round draft class who have graduated to the majors. After a recent IronPigs road trip, he woke up at 4:30 a.m., caught the team bus at 5, shared a commercial flight with his teammates to Newark at 7, rode another bus to Allentown and grabbed a 90-minute nap at home before heading to the park for his bullpen session.
"Personally, my faith has been a huge contributing factor in dealing with all the ups and downs I've been through," Appel, who is a Christian, said. "The fact I have as much hope and confidence of being a great big league player as the day I got drafted is a testament to that. Even though there are struggles and failures, there's never reason to lose hope. There's always a reason to press forward and keep persevering and working hard."
On a first-place Lehigh Valley team filled with prospects, Appel has become something of a baseball sage, dispensing advice rooted in the pitfalls of experience.
"That's one of the coolest gifts I've been given,'' he said. "It's a tough game. I just want to be a light of hope and optimism and someone who encourages my teammates to keep pressing forward in reminding them of the gifts the Lord has given them.
"It's so easy to allow yourself to be defined by your most recent game or most recent performance. If I had that mindset when I was back in Lancaster and I had a 10.00 ERA, then I was a failure. But I'm not a failure. I was just failing. There's a huge difference.''
After too many setbacks and plenty of waiting, Mark Appel is rich in perspective and focusing on the big picture. As the road from draft day to the majors continues to play out, he'll proceed on his own timetable.