CLEARWATER, FLA.--As spring training kicked into gear, Mark Appel went about his business quietly and methodically in Phillies camp. No one in the clubhouse sized up the 6-foot-5, 220-pound righthander and whispered, “Oh, that's him."
Appel surely wasn't anonymous, but there was a just-another-guy quality to him as he blended into a new environment. Maybe that's a good thing.
“I never want to live in the past," Appel said. “When I got drafted into pro ball I didn't want to live in the past and be defined by being the first overall pick."
With the Astros, Appel was never going to shake that distinction. He was drafted first overall out of Stanford in 2013 and signed for $6.35 million. When his development sputtered and his toughness was questioned and he didn't contribute at the big league level last year for a team battling for a playoff spot, he was labeled a bust.
Appel knows he wears that label, among others, but his December trade to the Phillies has given him a fresh start with a club that has vowed to sandblast all the labels and view him not necessarily as the guy who went “one-one," in draft parlance, but as just another pitching prospect they hope will one day contribute in the majors.
“That's what we're trying to do," first-year general manager Matt Klentak said. “We want to appreciate Mark for the pitcher he is and not necessarily the pitcher that everybody hoped or expected he would be. With all our guys, we want to appreciate what they do and not what they don't do."
Klentak, who wants to build the Phillies with “waves of pitching," picked up five starters when he sent closer Ken Giles and teenage infield prospect Jonathan Arauz to Houston. Appel was the lottery ticket in the return. Will he finally put it all together for a big payoff or be crumpled up and tossed aside? The Phillies seem content to wait and see. Other than to say Appel is slated to open the season in the Triple-A Lehigh Valley rotation, they say little about their plans and expectations for Appel.
In fact, they seem to be trying to unburden him from expectations. They seem to want to stay out of his ear and his head, content to just let him go pitch, find his own way and build something that he's lacked in the pro game--confidence. There's no way a player reaches his ceiling without it.
“What's encouraging is the physical traits that drove Mark to be the first overall pick are still present," Klentak said. “The raw stuff, his power, his delivery, his ability to make pitches are still there.
“We're hopeful that a change of scenery, a change of approach to some things and the ability to let him continue to grow into himself as a pitcher will allow him to have success.
Appel, who turns 25 in July, is quick to pay respect to the Astros for the lessons and experience he gained in their system. But he's also eager for his fresh start in Philadelphia, even if it means being back in a rebuilding situation.
“I look at this opportunity and the fact that the front office wanted me and traded for me and it's very exciting," Appel said.
Appel graduated to Triple-A last June and won four of his last five starts. That was a confidence builder. Physically, though, he still has command issues that he must improve on to make the next step. Those command issues--illustrated in his 1.439 WHIP in 54 minor league games--were evident when he issued four walks in two innings against the Yankees in his first spring outing.
“It has been a problem, if I'm being honest," he said. “My command is something I'm always working on, always wanting to improve. I think many coaches will attribute that to a physical problem. I think it might be more mental. I think it's almost willing yourself to throw the ball where you need to and trusting that the work you've put in will translate into consistency."
A Stanford graduate (with a degree in management science and engineering), Appel is very self-aware. He believes he is close to changing the focus and becoming a big league contributor.
“Maybe it hasn't happened at the pace many expected," he said. “Maybe I haven't reached expectations and that's on me.
“But I know I have the ability to be a consistent, dominant pitcher and that's honestly where I believe I will be. I don't think I've scratched the tip of the iceberg."
The Phillies hope he's right.