Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 26, 2022

The Dream Was Deferred, But It Never Died

The 2013 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft originated from the studios of the MLB Network in Secaucus, New Jersey, a practice that began in 2009 when the league shifted television coverage from ESPN to its own network.  Those studios remained the Draft’s home until just last year, when its date was shifted from June to July to make it a part of the All-Star Game’s festivities.  Last year’s Draft was thus broadcast from Denver and next month’s will take place in L.A.  The process by which major league franchises select college and high school players is now easier to relocate from year to year and to integrate into the many other events of one of the busiest weeks for off-field activities on MLB’s calendar because it has been dramatically shortened, to twenty rounds from roughly twice that number.

Back in 2013 the Draft ran 39 rounds, the fewest in several years on either side of that season.  A total of 1,216 players were selected, though in retrospect, despite that sheer volume of baseball ability the Draft was not especially productive.  The Cubs and Dodgers chose a couple of future National League MVP’s, with Chicago taking Kris Bryant as the second overall pick and L.A. selecting Cody Bellinger in the fourth round.  In between those two, the Yankees netted current face of the franchise Aaron Judge as a compensatory pick – selections made between the first and second rounds – for having lost free agent Nick Swisher to Cleveland after New York extended him a qualifying offer.  But there were few other future All-Stars chosen that year, a major letdown after the previous Draft produced ten such players among the first twenty-two picks.

Given the lackluster nature of the 2013 Draft, it has always seemed fitting that the first overall selection that year was right-handed pitcher Mark Appel of Stanford.  The Houston Astros, then deep into their rebuilding plan – they had taken Carlos Correa with the top pick one year earlier – made Appel the face of the 2013 Draft, rewarding him with the televised donning of an Astros jersey with the number one, and, more significantly, a signing bonus of $6.35 million.  It was the second time Appel was chosen in the first round.  One year earlier, the Pirates made him the eighth pick, but he chose to return to Stanford for his senior year rather than sign with Pittsburgh.

For all the attention lavished on player drafts in all our major team sports, and despite all the advanced metrics now applied to every aspiring young player, the process of identifying talent that will thrive at the top level of any of our games, and then keeping that talent healthy, remains as much art as science.  There simply are no guarantees, as the results of the 2013 MLB Draft attest.  But one thing that is very close to a given is that the first overall pick in the Draft will have a major league career, even if it often turns out to not be quite as stellar as the scouts had predicted.  Excluding Henry Davis, last year’s top pick who is still working his way up the Pirates’ farm system, only three players chosen number one since baseball’s draft began in 1965 have failed to reach the majors.  On that short and unhappy list are Steven Chilcott (Mets, 1966), Brien Taylor (Yankees, 1991), and Appel. 

In each case, injuries played a key role in ruining the great expectations that were placed on the shoulders of these young athletes.  Chilcott’s occurred on the field, while Taylor’s was the result of an off-season altercation.  Both first stunted and eventually ended promising baseball careers.  The sad tale appeared to have repeated itself more recently with Appel.  After his made-for-TV moment, and after agreeing to contract terms with Houston and depositing that bonus check, Appel reported to the team’s short-season rookie league affiliate in upstate New York.  Not surprisingly, given his lofty status, Appel made just two starts for the Tri-City Valley Cats before being promoted one rung up the minor league ladder to the Astros’ Single-A squad in the Midwest League.  There he joined Correa, making a bit of minor league history as the first two top picks to play together on the same farm team. 

During that brief first year, and again in 2014 and 2015, as Appel moved ever closer to the majors, he often displayed flashes of the ability that had turned heads in college, but also struggled with his control.  In the winter of 2015, after a season in which he reached Triple-A only to post a pedestrian 4.48 ERA, the Astros gave up on their prized draft pick and included Appel in a package of prospects traded to the Phillies for reliever Ken Giles. 

It was in Philadelphia’s minor league system that disaster struck.  In 2016 he went on the Injured List with a shoulder problem, then hurt his elbow while rehabbing, resulting in season-ending surgery.  The following season the shoulder issue returned, putting Appel on the shelf for two months.  By the end of 2017, the Phillies slapped the dreaded “designated for assignment” label on the former number one pick.  When no other club claimed him on waivers, Appel appeared headed back for another season of minor league struggles.  Before that could happen, just before Spring Training in 2018, weary of fighting through the constant pain in his shoulder and elbow, Appel announced he was “stepping away” from the Great Game.

But Mark Appel is today’s subject because against all odds, his baseball story didn’t end there, On Saturday, nine years after he was drafted, and more than four years after walking away from the sport, his name was removed from the short and unhappy list referenced above.  With a call-up to the Phillies from Triple-A Lehigh Valley, Mark Appel now wears a major league uniform.

Within months of his February 2018 announcement, Appel knew he missed the game and began to contemplate what it would take to get back.  He underwent another surgery that fall and began a long rehab, a slow and expensive process that Appel readily acknowledges might not have been possible without the financial cushion of his original signing bonus.  Since he had never formally retired, the Phillies retained his contract rights and agreed to give him another minor league shot last year.  The results, with Appel pitching in his customary starting role, were not great.  That might have been the end of any comeback hopes, but Philadelphia’s coaching staff decided to try him as a reliever.  This year, coming out of the bullpen, Appel has excelled – a 5-0 record and 1.61 ERA in 19 appearances for Lehigh Valley, with 24 strikeouts and just 8 walks over 28 innings.  At the end of the week, with the Phillies on the West Coast and setup man Connor Brogdon going on the COVID-19 Injured List, Appel’s long, long wait came to an end.

On Saturday he stepped onto a ball field as a member of a big league team’s roster for the first time.  Though the moment came long after it had been expected to, back on that June afternoon in Secaucus nine years ago, the now 30-year-old rookie was finally right where everyone always knew he belonged.

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