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Former No. 1 Pick Mark Appel Is Huge-Upside Wild Card of 2015 Trade Season

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 23, 2015

AP Images

Who's the best trade chip on the summer market? Heck, pick one. Between Johnny Cueto, Cole Hamels, David Price, Justin Upton and Carlos Gomez, there are plenty to choose from.

But none of them is the market's most interesting trade chip. That title belongs to Mark Appel.

As of now, the hard-throwing right-hander is still property of the Houston Astros. They drafted Appel out of Stanford with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and his recent promotion to Triple-A Fresno puts him just one step away from the majors.

The word around the campfire approaching the July 31 trade deadline, however, is that Appel may not remain Astros property for much longer.

Houston GM Jeff Luhnow is desperate for an arm.
Houston GM Jeff Luhnow is desperate for an arm.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

As they seek to turn their surprise 53-43 record into a postseason berth, the Astros have made no secret of their desire to add a starting pitcher to a rotation who can lend Cy Young contender Dallas Keuchel a hand. And on this front, their top prospects are on the table.

According to Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle, Appel is one of them. In fact, he writes they "might be more willing" to deal Appel than they are to deal fellow top prospect Brett Phillips, a 21-year-old outfielder who's turned into a hitting machine since the start of 2014. 

This should be surprising... But it's really not.

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Appel may be Houston's prize selection from the 2013 draft, but you wouldn't know it from looking at his minor league track record. For the most part, the 24-year-old has had a rocky journey:

Outside of his first six starts at Double-A Corpus Christi, Appel has had a rough go of it over the last two seasons. And in struggling with strikeouts, walks, hits and homers this year, Appel has looked more like a failed prospect than a top prospect.

And yet, he's still widely viewed as a top prospect. According to their latest rankings, both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus have Appel marked down as one of the top 40 prospects in baseball. ESPN.com's Keith Law isn't as optimistic, but even he only has Appel as low as No. 41.

So though Appel's stock is slipping, it hasn't bombed yet. The Astros' position is therefore understandable, as trading Appel now could be their best chance of capitalizing on the upside he has left.

But Appel's upside is a road that goes both ways. Just as the Astros would be smart to capitalize on it in a trade for an established arm, whichever team gives them that established arm would be smart to think it could actually make something of Appel's upside.

If a team makes an upside play on Appel, it wouldn't need to worry about fixing something that's completely broken. Humpty Dumpty, he is not.

After all, two of the things that made Appel the top prospect of the 2013 draft class are still there. He still has the size for top-of-the-rotation duty at 6'5" and 220 pounds, and he also still has the stuff that everyone was in love with. In his mid-to-upper-90s fastball, slider and changeup, he boasts three plus pitches.

Appel definitely brought his best stuff to the Futures Game, where he was sitting in the upper 90s with his heat.
Appel definitely brought his best stuff to the Futures Game, where he was sitting in the upper 90s with his heat.John Minchillo/Associated Press

It's mainly thanks to this stuff that it's too early to call Appel a lost cause. He's had a hell of a time making the transition from college to the pros, but he's as legit as anyone when it comes to the throwing aspect of pitching.

All he needs to do now, really, is figure out the "pitching" aspect of pitching.

To this end, it seems that one of the more popular narratives is that Appel's major malfunction lies upstairs. Joel Sherman of the New York Post recently wrote that questions have arisen about Appel's makeup. Baseball Prospectus' latest scouting report indicates the same thing, noting that some question whether Appel has the "intestinal fortitude" to be a front-line pitcher.

Maybe this is the case. Maybe Appel is nothing more than a great arm attached to a nervous system that can't hack it. If so, a team that makes an upside play on him may be able to do nothing with him.

Or, it could be that Appel's inconsistency stems from the Astros' meddling.

It's a given that every pitching prospect will be subjected to tips, pointers and tweaks, but one wonders if the Astros have pushed too many of these on Appel. Here's what Law writes about the reasons for Appel's underwhelming pitching:

Appel's results have still lagged behind his stuff, although part of that is due to delivery and repertoire changes the Astros have pushed on him, such as making him throw more four-seamers and fewer two-seamers...

The things to note here are that the Astros have altered both Appel's mechanics and his pitch selection. And in doing so, their well-intentioned ideas may have also been the wrong ideas.

For starters, there's how the Astros have asked that Appel to prioritize his four-seamer over his two-seamer. In doing so, they've asked him to prioritize a pitch he didn't throw at all in games when he was in college.

Here's what Appel told Drellich in the winter of 2013:

I've only thrown a two-seam my whole career. It's a little abnormal. That's just how I started throwing a ball when I was a kid. [The two-seamer] moves a little bit, not as much as, I guess, a traditional two-seamer. I've experimented with the four-seam, and I just think I didn't stick with it long enough...

The bright side of Appel developing a four-seamer in the minors is that it's a pitch that allows him to light up the radar gun, as Law writes he sits at 95 miles per hour with it. 

But Law also notes that Appel's four-seamer "doesn't have the action" that his two-seamer does. Given that one of Baseball America's complaints about Appel coming into 2015 is that he has a hard time with deception, it's arguable that he should be relying on his two-seamer's action rather than his four-seamer's velocity. Maybe the Corey Kluber route is the right one for him.

As for Appel's delivery, it's possible the Astros have the wrong idea there, too.

The Astros have changed Appel's delivery from what it was like in college, and that may not be the right idea.
The Astros have changed Appel's delivery from what it was like in college, and that may not be the right idea.Phil Sears/Associated Press

As Gideon Rubin wrote at Baseball America in 2012, Appel was known for having a "free and easy old-school style delivery" when he was in college. This is opposed to the more "rigid" deliveries featured by many modern power pitchers, and it drew rave reviews from those who got to be around him daily.

Said Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter: "There's no tension, it's more of a classic windup. You can see him swinging his arms, and he's athletic enough to control some extra free movement."

And then-teammate Stephen Piscotty: "He has that kind of slow delivery and then all of a sudden it just pops. It can get on you quick."

It's times like these when moving images can be helpful, so let's take a look at a video:

There's quite a few moving parts in that delivery, but it's not hard to see what they meant by it being free and easy. And Appel apparently had no issues executing it over and over, as Nick J. Faleris of Baseball Prospectus wrote that he "had no difficulty regularly repeating his delivery."

So maybe, just maybe, the Astros should have let Appel's delivery be. But they've chosen to do otherwise, and it's possible they've done so in the worst way imaginable. 

Where Appel's delivery was once known for being free and easy, Drellich reported this spring that the Astros were trying to get him to be more compact. And apparently they were successful, as young catcher Tyler Heineman noted that Appel's delivery looked "way more" compact than it had been.

“I wouldn’t say he’s a different pitcher completely," Heineman said, but then he added, "that adjustment of quickening everything up, especially with his leg, just made everything else fall into place.”

This certainly sounded like a positive development at the time, but the way in which Appel's season has unfolded raises questions about that. Maybe a more compact delivery just isn't the right thing for him.

Again, the bright side of all this is that Appel's raw stuff hasn't been harmed. Above all else, that's what's going to attract interested parties to him on the trade market. Then it will become a matter of whether any of these interested parties is willing to sacrifice an established pitcher for a shot at translating that stuff into the results the baseball world has been waiting for.

And given the circumstances, that may not be a doomed errand.

Rather than a guy who just can't handle professional baseball, it's possible Appel is a guy who just needs proper handling. That could be as simple as a team letting him roll with what worked for him in college. Or, it could be that he just needs better direction than he's received from the Astros.

Either way, he has all the makings of the kind of upside play that prospect sellers should be interested in. We'll find out soon enough if one is willing to bite.

Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked.

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