Mark Appel, the Stanford right-handed pitcher who passed up a $3.8 million bonus from the Pittsburgh Pirates as the No. 8 pick in last year's draft, appears to have made a smart business decision to return to school for his senior season in 2013.
With the Major League Baseball draft just two days away, Appel has been at or near the top of the prospect rankings since the college season started and will, in all likelihood, be the No. 1 pick of the Houston Astros or No. 2 pick of the Chicago Cubs.
By virtue of having the worst record in baseball last year, the Astros have, by far, the most money to spend under the new MLB draft slotting system. With its top 10 picks, Houston has $11,698,800 it can use to sign players (h/t Baseball America).
While that number is nice, it doesn't do much to tell the story about Appel, who will be gone long before the Astros make their second pick of the draft, though it is relevant to the argument that they should take him No. 1 overall.
For the purposes of this discussion, the more interesting and pertinent number is $7,790,400. That is the amount of money the Astros have been slotted for the top pick (h/t Baseball America). That is an increase of nearly $600,000 from last year's allocated amount for the No. 1 selection.
(For the record, in an effort to maximize their total slot money last year, the Astros selected Carlos Correa, who was worthy of going that high despite what Byron Buxton is doing in the minors right now, with the first overall pick and signed him to an under-slot deal of $4.8 million and were able to agree to terms with Lance McCullers, Jr. and Rio Ruiz to bolster their draft class.)
Knowing that Appel is represented by Scott Boras, as well as everything that went down last year with the Pirates that led to him returning to Stanford, the odds of the 21-year-old taking a deal less than the value assigned seems slim.
Obviously, fans and perhaps some media will criticize Appel—and by extension, Boras—for being all about the money. It is the (unjust) nature of the beast when you are an athlete being offered money to play a game.
But the bigger question is: Why wouldn't he get everything that he can right now?
Knowing the attrition rate for pitchers, Appel will be looking to at least secure his future right now should something happen. Even though he isn't thinking that he will break down or flame out in the minors, it could be in the back of his mind.
What will be first and foremost on his mind is the fact that he is the best player in this draft, and should be paid as such.
Appel went back to Stanford with everything to lose after being a top-10 pick last year, but instead he came out looking better than ever before. He tied a career high set last year with 130 strikeouts, but he did it in 16.2 fewer innings pitched.
The big knock against him last year was that, while his delivery and mechanics were clean and presented no real risk for injury, he didn't hide the ball that well and hitters were able to square him up a lot more than you would think for a player with his stuff.
All that has changed this year, as Appel looked much sharper. His fastball was still sitting in the mid-90s, but his slider looked better with more hard tilt, and the changeup looked like a potential plus pitch.
This year's draft class has been criticized as being down on talent overall, with Appel looking like the one sure thing to, if not reach, at least come close to hitting his ceiling as a very good No. 2 starter.
Things got a little more cloudy on Monday night, when it was reported by Keith Law of ESPN that Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray, one of the players also in the mix for the top pick in the draft thanks to a breakout season in 2013, tested positive for Adderall during the pre-draft drug testing program.
The positive test will not result in a suspension, but will make Gray subject to additional follow-up testing once he begins his pro career, according to a source with Major League Baseball. Adderall comprises salts of two amphetamines and is banned by MLB unless the player has a valid therapeutic use exemption. Multiple sources indicated that Gray did not have a prescription for the drug.
We won't know until the draft begins just how much, if at all, this late news affects Gray's status on Thursday night. Given his frame and stuff, perhaps it does nothing and he still remains one of the top two picks. In a worst-case scenario, he still probably won't go later than No. 5 to Cleveland or 6 to Miami.
All of this brings us back to the Astros and what they want to do with the No. 1 pick. There are certainly options out there for them to look at. One of the hot rumors, according to Law (for Insiders), is that Houston will go with North Carolina third baseman Colin Moran with that pick.
Law also notes that Appel is one of four names still seriously in the mix for the Astros and that he doesn't expect "a final decision until Wednesday or Thursday..."
While there is something to be said for that kind of strategy—and it was rightly praised last year—if you are the Astros, desperate for high-end, impact talent that you can, with reasonable confidence, count on to live up to expectations, why would you settle for anything less than the best right now?
Houston general manager Jeff Luhnow was an instrumental part of building St. Louis' current farm system, the best in baseball and critical to that World Series in 2011. So it would be hard to argue against any strategy that he uses.
But in a draft class that everyone will tell you is short on high-ceiling talent, Appel is the standout for his upside, polish and ability to move through a system quickly.
All of that makes Appel more than worthy of the No. 1 pick and the full slot value attached to it. There are always going to be business decisions that influence these picks, but speaking strictly from a baseball perspective, the Astros' best course of action would be to take the top player in the class and worry about finances later in the draft.
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