A periodic look at some of the most intriguing draft prospects in sports
Mark Appel has been branded.
Not as the best pitcher in college baseball, though the 6'5" righthander, who had 48 strikeouts in 30 innings over his first four starts this season for No. 9 Stanford, is almost certainly that. Not as the top pitcher available in the major league draft this June, even though he's a seemingly can't-miss prospect with a fastball that sits comfortably between 93 and 96 mph and a big-league-ready slider. Not even as the prototypical Stanford student-athlete, one who will graduate early with a degree in management, science and technology.
No, Appel is the guy who turned down $3.8 million. He might as well wear a T-shirt with that figure emblazoned on it, because the sum of what most people know about him is, well, that sum. Last June the Pirates offered Appel that amount after selecting him with the eighth pick in the 2012 draft. He passed on the money and returned to Stanford for his senior year, making him the only one of last year's top 31 picks who didn't sign. For that, the blogosphere labeled Appel as shortsighted, dumb and a pawn of superagent Scott Boras, who acted as an unofficial adviser to the Appel camp. "When I made that decision, people only looked at the money," Appel says. "I also factored in that I would get to be here at Stanford, which is like home, for another year, and I would get another chance to help my team get to [the College World Series], and I would get my degree."
Some people won't buy that. The belief lingers among some fans that Appel only returned to school because the Pirates didn't pay him what he wanted. There is no way to disprove that, so Appel doesn't try. Walking across the Stanford campus last week on a bluebird day, he responded to a question about how he could have turned down $3.8 million by opening his arms, as if extending an embrace to his sun-soaked surroundings. "This," he says, "is pretty good too."
APPEL WILL forever be known as the first test case of baseball's new draft rules, which went into effect last year. The guidelines, revamped in the collective bargaining agreement signed after the 2011 season and designed to keep big-market teams with later picks from throwing around big bonuses, now include slotted signing bonuses (amounts are dictated by draft position) and a semihard cap on the total amount teams can spend on all their picks. A club can sign a player for more than the slot amount and blow the cap, but it will pay a tax and/or lose future draft picks, depending on how far over the cap it goes.
As the 2012 draft approached, Appel was projected to go No. 1 overall to the Astros, the team he followed growing up in Houston, and receive a signing bonus somewhere near the slot amount of $7.2 million. But teams were reportedly concerned about negotiating with the notoriously hard-driving Boras, so Appel fell to Pittsburgh—and its slotted bonus of $2.9 million. Asked if he was disappointed on draft day, the usually affable Appel tenses up and says, "I feel like I've talked a lot about that already." His dismay was clear when he skipped the Pirates' postdraft media conference call.
Appel negotiated with the Pirates right up to the July 13 deadline for draftees to sign, and the team eventually upped its bonus offer to $3.8 million. That would have sent Pittsburgh over its bonus cap and triggered a tax, but the team felt Appel was worth it. It was assumed he would take the money.
"When my junior year ended, I was ready to go [to professional baseball]. I felt the time was right," says Appel. But as talks with the Pirates dragged on, he began to consider a return to Stanford. Going back to school would give him the opportunity to erase the memory of a disappointing end to his junior season, which saw the Cardinal fall short of a trip to Omaha with a super regional loss to Florida State. That series included the worst outing of Appel's college career: a four-inning, seven-run disaster in a 17--1 loss to the Seminoles. Returning to school would also allow him to exit with the safety net of a Stanford degree.
That kind of thinking is not unique among elite Cardinal athletes (see: Luck, Andrew), but it is exceedingly rare among baseball prospects of Appel's caliber, and it led to speculation that Appel was being used by Boras to challenge the new draft guidelines. Appel's father, Patrick, is a lawyer for Chevron, and his son is no dummy. (In his final academic quarter Appel, who will graduate later this month, carried 15 units, including classes on chemical transformations, engineering risk analysis and a senior project on which he does consulting for a fabric company in Los Angeles.) Both men dismiss the notion that Boras manipulated them, as it suggests they were uninformed participants in the process. "I can't imagine anyone thinking that Scott Boras was pulling our strings," says Patrick Appel. "I didn't see that in Mark's relationship with him. The advice wasn't: 'This is what you should do.' It was: 'Here are your options.'"
"It was my decision," says Appel. "It wasn't Scott Boras's decision. He was an adviser. He lays stuff out, and you can choose to accept or not. Once we sat down and looked at everything, this was just the right choice."
Appel is well aware that by returning for his senior season he gave up the leverage he'd had in his negotiations with the Pirates. Without the threat of a return to college, what will stop the next team that drafts him from offering less than Pittsburgh did? "The only leverage you have your senior year is your talent," Appel says. "I guess I am willing to trust my abilities."
Appel struggled in his first start this season, against No. 17 Rice, allowing five runs on seven hits in five innings. Since then he has been almost unhittable: In 25 innings pitched, he's given up just 10 hits and has an ERA of 0.72. "The opener against Rice was just a game where the ball was up," says Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter. "We made some adjustments, and he has kept the ball down. People will look at the strikeouts, but whenever he keeps the ball down he is pretty difficult to hit."
It is widely believed that a pitcher has nothing to gain by spending another year in college, that delaying the climb up the minor league ladder will only stunt his development. "I think Mark took that as a personal challenge," says his dad. "He believes he can get better this year."
Appel gained about five pounds of muscle in the off-season, and Filter, who coached Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State, has worked with Appel on increasing the downward angle of his fastball. ("But we really are nitpicking here," Filter says.) Appel believes most of his improvement has been in his mental approach. Asked about one National League scout's assessment of his performance thus far, which included the observation that Appel was more aggressive this year, the pitcher says, "Obviously you have to trust your talent and stuff, but you also have to go out there with something to prove. Justin Verlander and David Price don't have anything to prove, but they go out there and pitch like they do. That's where I think I have improved. I am in attack mode, just filling up the [strike] zone."
Appel's family moved from Houston to San Ramon, Calif., in 2003 when he was 12. He was a star basketball player at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif., but as an underclassman he was overshadowed on the baseball team by several other pitchers who would go on to play in college. Appel was primarily a reliever in high school and in his first year at Stanford, but he moved into the rotation as a sophomore and became the Cardinal's ace. "Everyone knew Mark had the big arm and the body type when he came in," Filter says. "But he was a blank slate, which was great. He had that good fastball but hadn't thrown a lot of off-speed pitches."
In 2011, Appel's father and mother, Sondra, moved to China; a few weeks ago they relocated again to Houston, where they are just getting settled. It has escaped no one that this year the Astros again have the No. 1 selection in the draft, presenting the possibility of a homecoming and a happy ending to Appel's draft saga. But Appel says that's not needed to validate his decision. If he gets picked lower than he did last year, and if he signs for less than $3.8 million, he won't consider his decision to return to Stanford a mistake, even if critics label him a fool for going back to school.
"People dwell on the decision because it is an odd decision in their minds," Appel says. "But I have moved on. In my eyes it has already been a wonderful year, full of memories I've created and memories I hope to still create with my teammates. I'm not going to determine if it was a good decision based on money."
"The only leverage you have your senior year is your talent," says Appel. "I am willing to trust my abilities."
BRAD MANGIN (APPEL)
TWO DOWN ... A 15th-round pick out of high school and a first-rounder last year, Appel will enter his third draft in June.
PAUL SAKUMA/AP (APPEL STRETCHING)
SENIOR MOMENTS The fireballing Appel is enjoying his return: He's struck out at least 10 in each of his last three starts.
BRAD MANGIN (APPEL IN BULLPEN)
[See caption above]