How Quickly Will Astros Top Pick Mark Appel Make His MLB Debut?
My surprise level: Meh, relatively low.
The Astros were linked to Appel when they had the No. 1 pick in last year's draft. They could have saved some money by going with somebody like North Carolina's Colin Moran with the top pick this year, but they went for a prospect considered the best in the class by ESPN's Keith Law and Bleacher Report's own Mike Rosenbaum.
So the Astros have themselves a pretty nice talent, but when are we going to see him?
If you ask MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds, he'll tell you that Appel could be in Houston's rotation as soon as July.
Yes, July, meaning this July. The July that's in, like, three weeks.
You don't want to listen to Reynolds on this one (or much else, really). He overestimated Appel's arrival time by about a year. Possibly more.
It's not unheard of for draftees to make their major league debuts the same year as the draft. Chris Sale did it just a couple years ago, for that matter.
But it's rare, and a habit that's all but been retired with No. 1 picks. The last first overall pick to debut the same year as the draft was Ben McDonald in 1989, nearly 25 years ago.
Teams know better. A lot is invested in No. 1 overall picks, and nobody wants another David Clyde. And since the teams picking first are usually lousy clubs in the middle of rebuilding phases, there's no rush.
"Lousy and in the middle of a rebuilding phase" describes the Astros pretty well, and the organization's front office has more than enough smart people to put together a plan that will get Appel to the big leagues when he's ready rather than as soon as possible.
However, indications are Appel could start his pro career relatively close to the big leagues. Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle has this straight from Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow:
#Astros' Luhnow unsure where Appel will start pro career but joked, "Probably not Lancaster."— Brian T. Smith (@ChronAstros) June 6, 2013
The Lancaster JetHawks are Houston's High-A affiliate. Deciphering Luhnow's tone via words in a tweet isn't easy, but it sounds like he's thinking Appel could go right to the Double-A Corpus Christi.
Appel wouldn't be out of his league in Double-A. He's leaving Stanford as a senior rather than as a junior, so he has an extra year of pitching under his belt than fellow top-flight pitching prospect Jonathan Gray.
Appel's pitching reflects as much. Baseball America's scouting report for him, which you need a subscription to read, credited him for fine-tuning his stuff in his senior season. Specifically, he improved his changeup to a point where it should at least be an average pitch. He already had a plus fastball and slider.
Appel dominated in his senior season more than he did in any of his previous three seasons at Stanford, and the general consensus is that he has the stuff and pitching know-how to move quickly through the minors. Not July quickly, mind you, but quickly.
You obviously never know with prospects. Especially not with pitchers. The Pittsburgh Pirates probably thought Bryan Bullington was going to be a fast mover after they drafted him out of Ball State in 2002, but he didn't make his debut until 2005. Kris Benson also needed a few years in the minors after he was drafted No. 1 out of Clemson in 1996.
If Appel makes a smooth transition in the minors, however, he could indeed move quickly and be knocking on the door to the majors next year.
Luke Hochevar, David Price and Stephen Strasburg all came out of college and debuted in the majors just a year after the draft. Appel could do the same. This July is certainly out of the question, but not next July.
Of course, there's always the possibility that the Astros will be in a position where they'd rather keep Appel down even if he is ready to debut next summer. If the club is in the middle of another rotten season, they could prioritize Appel's arbitration clock over his talent.
If so, Appel's debut could be held off until September, 2014, or maybe even 2015.
Projecting timelines for draft prospects is messy like this, but the short version of all this is that Appel should be a guy who moves quickly and that he could be the next in a line of college pitchers who were in the big leagues just one year after being drafted.
If I must have a guess—and I do—I'll put Appel's major league debut sometime in 2014. And like Hochevar and Price before him, I'll go conservative with a September call-up as the excuse.
Don't hold it against me if he debuts sooner or later than then. Because, you know, prospects.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.
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