It won't be long until Mark Appel joins the Houston Astros' starting rotation.
While it will be several years until most of the 2013 draft picks are ready for the major leagues, there exists a small contingent of players with the potential to contribute at the highest level in 2014.
Thanks to an accelerated signing deadline in mid-July under Major League Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement—it used to be mid-August—draft picks are now encouraged to quickly begin their professional careers. For some of those players, that means an ahead-of-schedule debut in the major leagues the following year.
Here’s a look at five early-round picks from the 2013 draft who are fast-tracked toward MLB success.
Jonathan Gray, RHP, Colorado Rockies
The No. 3-overall pick in the 2013 draft, Jonathan Gray is what a front-of-the-rotation starter should look like, with a large, durable build, electric arsenal and aggressive approach.
Owner of the best pure stuff in the 2013 draft class, the right-hander boasts a near-elite fastball that registers in the 94-98 mph and touches triple digits early in starts (he topped out at 102 mph this spring). He also features a plus slider that sits consistently between 85-88 mph with late, wipe-out break, sharp tilt and excellent pace. His straight changeup represents his weakest offering and will need refinement, as it’s currently an average pitch with decent fading action to the arm side.
The Rockies assigned Gray to the Rookie-level Pioneer League to begin his professional career, where he was slow to get going with a 4.05 ERA over four starts. The right-hander was then promoted to High-A Modesto in early August to conclude his professional debut—which he did in dominating fashion. Making five starts in the hitter-friendly California League, the 22-year-old allowed only 10 hits and recorded 36 strikeouts in 24 innings.
Though Gray could probably open the 2014 season in the Rockies’ starting rotation, the organization obviously has no need to rush his development and will presumably issue him an Opening Day assignment to Double-A Tulsa. But as long as he can stay healthy, it may be difficult keep him in the minors next season for more than a few months.
Mark Appel, RHP, Houston Astros
The No. 1-overall pick in the 2013 draft, Mark Appel has been tabbed as a future ace since the beginning of his 2012 campaign at Stanford, and he shouldn’t require much time in the minor leagues.
As a 6’5”, 190-pound right-hander, Appel’s fastball sits consistently in the 93-97 mph range with some sink and arm-side run. His slider registers around 84-88 mph with a consistent pace, though he can get around the pitch at times and generate slurve-like spin. Appel’s changeup has come a long way over the last year and shows plus potential in the 83-85 mph range with fastball-like arm speed and late fade.
After signing with the Astros last summer, Appel made two brief starts in the short-season New York-Penn League before moving up to Low-A Quad Cities for the final two months of the minor league regular season. Besides one ugly outing (3.1 IP, 9 H, 7 ER), Appel pitched well in his first taste of full-season ball, registering a 3.82 ERA and 29-7 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 33 innings.
While Appel’s arsenal ranks as one of the more advanced and polished among pitching prospects, his approach and feel for sequencing may need to be adjusted as he climbs the ladder and faces more experienced hitters. The Astros won’t need him at the major league level in 2014, but, at the same time, they won’t be afraid to challenge him if it makes sense. Expect the right-hander to debut in late July or early August.
D.J. Peterson, 3B/1B, Seattle Mariners
Arguably the most advanced college hitter in the 2013 draft class, D.J. Peterson has the potential to move quickly through Seattle’s system thanks to his combination of preternatural bat-to-ball skills and an advanced approach.
Although there’s uncertainty regarding his long-term defensive home—he’s currently a third baseman, but his lack of range and athleticism means he’ll likely shift to first base down the line—Peterson’s potential for plus hit and power tools at maturity should be a clean fit at either infield corner.
After the 22-year-old posted a .914 OPS over 29 games in the Northwest League to begin his professional career, the Mariners promoted Peterson in late July to Low-A Clinton for the final six weeks of the minor league season. Unfortunately, the right-handed batter was hit in the face by a pitch on Aug. 22, breaking his jaw and prematurely ending his professional debut. Overall, he batted .303/.365/.553 with 13 home runs and 47 RBI in 55 games between both levels.
The Mariners were aggressive with the development of 2012 first-rounder Mike Zunino, and they are likely to do something similar with Peterson next season. There’s a realistic chance that the 22-year-old begins the upcoming season at Double-A Jackson, and if that’s ultimately the case, then Peterson, like Zunino, should reach the major leagues ahead of schedule.
Corey Knebel, RHP, Detroit Tigers
Corey Knebel was widely regarded as the best true closer in the 2013 draft class after a strong career at the University of Texas, so it wasn’t surprising that the Detroit Tigers, a team with major question marks surrounding their big league bullpen, took him with the No. 39-overall pick.
Boasting a plus fastball-curveball combination ideal for a late-inning role, the 22-year-old dominated as the closer for Low-A West Michigan last summer in his professional debut. Granted, he faced mostly younger hitters in the Midwest League, but that doesn’t completely detract from the right-hander’s 15 saves, 0.87 ERA and 41 strikeouts in 31 innings.
Knebel was equally impressive during his time in the Arizona Fall League—save for one forgettable outing (Nov. 6) for which I was in attendance—logging eight scoreless appearances with 11 strikeouts in 8.2 innings.
Given his performance at the Low-A level last summer, Knebel should open the 2014 season at either High- or Double-A, and generally has the potential to move up the ladder in a hurry. Both his stuff and makeup are nearly ready for the highest level, and I expect him to emerge as at least a late-inning option for the Tigers by mid-season.
Kyle Crockett, LHP, Cleveland Indians
The Cleveland Indians made Kyle Crockett their fourth-round selection this past June after he turned in a dominant season as Virginia Tech’s closer, saving 10 games and posting a 51-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 43 innings.
While the 6’2” left-hander lacks a plus pitch, both his fastball and slider are at least average and masked by a deceptive, low-three-quarters arm slot. As you can imagine, the 22-year-old is especially tough on same-side hitters.
After signing with the Indians, Crockett was dispatched to the short-season New York-Penn League and promptly fanned 16 batters over 9.1 scoreless innings. He then made a brief, four-game stop with Low-A Lake County before moving up to Double-A Akron in early August. At the more advanced level, Crockett failed to allow an earned run over nine appearances (10.1 IP).
After his impressive pro debut, Crockett will likely begin the 2014 season back at Akron. However, it really doesn’t matter where the southpaw starts next year; he’s on the fast track to the major leagues and should be one of the first—if not the first—2013 draftees to get the call next season.