Let me begin by stating clearly: I am no scout. I do not look at certain minor league players the way our own prospect team here (Cormican and Jay Polinsky) does with the ability to project how well a player will do at different levels. What I do have is the ability to read and make critical thoughts based on what I read. And from what I have gathered from around the internet, the time has come to end the “Mark Appel as a starter” conversation and begin trying to salvage some value from his acquisition by converting him to a reliever.
This is something that people have been talking about for a few years, but the most recent report suggests that many fans’ worst fears are being realized about Appel. You all know the story by now. Drafted in 2012 by the Pittsburgh Pirates eighth overall, he turned down a substantial payday in order to re-enter the draft the year later in the hopes of securing an even larger payday by going in a higher selection. That decision paid off as the Houston Astros selected him with the top overall pick. Since then, it has been a steady downhill fall for Appel. While he did not end his first professional season badly, the numbers were not that of someone who was a polished collegiate pitcher who should have been dominating lesser competition. 2014 saw him begin his year with a horrendous couple of starts in high-A only to get promoted because the park he was pitching in wasn’t conducive to his work. From there, he pitched poorly enough to be thrown into the package the Astros created to get Ken Giles. Since arriving in Philadelphia’s system, nothing he has done has led people to think he’s ready for any kind of promotion to the big leagues.
Coming into 2017, it sure felt like this was his last shot at starting before the team began to reassess his career arc. Matt Winkelman, in his preseason rankings for the team found here, discussed how Appel, in the most optimistic sense, would be a “mid rotation starter with at least two plus pitches.” Realistically, he said, Apple would develop into something “along the lines of Luke Hochevar.” Hochevar, of course, is similar in a lot of ways to Appel: former #1 overall pick that battled injuries through the minor leagues and just could not put anything together as a starter, necessitating his move to the bullpen.
Keith Law was a bit more optimistic heading into the season, saying:
The stuff that made him the No. 1 overall pick is largely still there, but he has had problems working from the stretch for the past several seasons, losing all fastball plane in the process, something the Phillies had him work on while rehabbing this summer.
Seeing issues from the stretch is not something one would wish to see from a reliever, but you can see the hints of a role change in Law’s tone. Fangraphs’ Eric Longenhagen was forthright in his evaluation of Appel:
At this point, I think the best course of action is just to stick Appel, who is now 25 years old, in the bullpen and let him air out his fastball and plus, mid-80s slider. But Appel has had issues maintaining his stuff from the stretch, and a move to the bullpen means pitching exclusively from it. Based on where the Phillies are in the competitive cycle, you can argue it makes sense to keep running him out as a starter, just to see what happens — at least until the big club actually needs another relief arm. On stuff he’s a No. 3 or 4 but the results have literally never been there, and I don’t think they ever will be unless a significant change is made.
So, coming into the season, the onus was on Appel to improve as a starter or else. How has he responded? Well, it hasn’t been pretty: 3 GS, 7.11 ERA, 12.2 IP, 7/6 K/BB and a 1.82 WHIP. Yes, it is a small sample size, so instead let’s think about how he actually looks to scouts who are looking at him.
This is where it gets depressing. On Monday, Baseball Prospectus gave their weekly look at different players around the minors leagues who are notable for either good reasons or bad. Appel does not fall into the former. Take a look at what BP writer Chaz Fiorino wrote about Appel the other day:
Listed at 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, the Phillies 25-year-old right-hander has a matured build with a strong lower half. Appel has lots of moving parts in his delivery making it tough to repeat and throw consistent strikes. His arm works well and it’s a fringe-average three-pitch mix at best across the board (fastball, slider, changeup). Appel’s fastball was 91-94 mph and fairly straight and hittable. The lack of movement and overall command results in an average grade fastball. The slider was 81-83 with short, vertical break grading as an average grade pitch but does not project to be a legit swing-miss offering. The changeup was 83-85 and a clear third offering that was straight and fairly flat, playing more as a BP fastball. There’s not much, if any, projection left with Appel and he appears to be a solid Triple-A organizational depth arm that could make a few spot starts in case of emergency at the major league level.
Organizational depth. Two words that no one ever wants to hear about a top prospect in their system. Unless Appel takes major steps forward in the next month, it looks like the team will have no other choice but to begin his transition to a bullpen role. Again, I understand it’s a small sample size of starts, but taken into step with the fact that he has struggled in the past, as well as the fact that he is already 25 years old, and we have the very real possibility that starting just isn’t in the cards for Appel.
However, this should not be looked at at some kind of failure in the trade that brought him here. When the package for Giles was announced, all of the focus was correctly placed on the fact that Vince Velasquez was the headliner. Sure, you could look at Appel as the second big part of that deal, but there wasn’t much expected other than the hope that a change of scenery was the best solution to Appel’s issues. He hasn’t enjoyed the best of health since entering the system, but the bottom line is that he clearly is not working as a starter. By shifting to a reliever role, he would no longer have to worry, as Longenhagen stated, about developing a third pitch, instead only needing to focus on his fastball, which could tic up a bit, and slider.
It would also be a good move in looking toward the future. Jeanmar Gomez will be a free agent next season and will probably not be coming back. The team will need someone who can throw multiple innings a few times a week, a role Appel would be able to fill. If everything were to break correctly (and this is starry eyed optimism), perhaps he could become a slightly lesser version of Andrew Miller. While that is probably not happening, the trend of baseball bullpens using an effective reliever for multiple innings isn’t stopping any time soon. Just look at what Cincinnati is doing right now with their bullpen. Creating a pitcher with the ability to get hitters out for multiple innings that would make the major league minimum is not only something makes baseball sense, it makes fiscal sense as well.
While it’s probably something that Appel would not keen on doing, it’s probably in his best interest if he wishes to establish himself in the major leagues. Having been leapfrogged by several younger arms in the Triple A pecking order, he doesn’t look to have a clear path to a rotation spot either now or in the future. With the state of the current bullpen in such a state of flux, he’d be better served trying to establish himself there. It’s something that could be best for everyone involved.