Number one pick to number three no-Show doesn’t haunt oft-injured Mark Appel

Shoulder injuries eroded the baseball smile for former Astros number one draft pick Mark Appel.

Shoulder injuries eroded the baseball smile for former Astros number one draft pick Mark Appel.

The next time you think baseball is as simple a game as it looks, you might want to ponder Mark Appel. The former Houston pitching prospect who went number one in the 2013 draft, while the Astros performed the rebuild that culminated in last fall’s World Series conquest, is stepping away from the game.

If he stays there, as Bleacher Report notes in a striking story about the 26-year-old righthander, Appel will become the third number one pick never to see even an hour in the Show outside spring training, in hand with Steve Chilcott and Brien Taylor. And it’ll be for the same reason—injuries.

“Maybe we should all get together and have a party,” said Appel to BR when told of that. BR said he laughed when he said it. But then he got serious. “I don’t know what the future holds,” he said to follow up. “I’m pursuing other things, but also trying to become a healthy human.”

Appel is healthy enough in mind. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University, where he elected to finish his senior year rather than sign with the Pirates—who picked him number eight, after the Astros chose Carlos Correa—a year before the Astros took him number one. He’s considering business school opportunities at his alma mater and several other respected universities.

But his mind and his body alike may have told him it was time to walk away from the game he loves above and beyond numerous games he enjoys playing. (Appel is known to own and play thirty assorted board games.) At this writing he’s rehabbing a shoulder injury he suffered last season in the Philadelphia system. It wasn’t his first acquaintance with the injury bug.

Following an appendectomy that kept him to only five spring training games, Appel pitched with a sore arm and shoulder in his first full minor league season—for Lancaster (A), where the winds made it heaven for hitters and hell for pitchers, and the team used a so-called piggyback system of stacking starting pitchers to pitch every four days.

The Stanford kid who was the NCAA’s Pitcher of the Year in 2012, striking out 130 and walking only 26 in 106.1 innings, got his first taste of baseball’s flip side. In three words, he was murdered. It wouldn’t even be close to his last such taste.

2016: season-ending bone spur surgery. 2017: shoulder inflammation. The kid some analysts thought would turn up in the Show as early as August the same year he went number one to the Astros—who eventually packaged him to the Phillies in the deal that brought them star-crossed closer Ken Giles—never truly pitched healthy.

His ERAs from 2014-2017: 6.91, 4.37, 4.46, 5.14. He may have been lucky to post a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his minor league career so far. He watched assorted buddies from his early days in the Astros system—George Springer, Jose Altuve, Lance McCullers, and Correa—rise up and conquer baseball last fall.

BR says he sometimes ponders what would have been if the Astros hadn’t passed on Kris Bryant in the 2013 draft to take him. “I don’t know if I’m four-and-a-half years later wanting to step away from the game,” Appel said, “but I’m sure it has to be different. I never go to Lancaster, and that was an introduction to pro ball in the worst way possible. … If they choose me over Correa, do the Astros win a World Series?”

That’s a good question. One of the kind you ask when your most obvious hope gets shredded into your most obvious disappointment. And sometimes you ask the question in reverse. Steve Chilcott could be forgiven if he asked even once if the Mets would have reached the Promised Land for the first time sooner if they’d picked Reggie Jackson instead of him.

Chilcott was the Mets’ number one pick in 1966, ahead of the Hall of Famer. Casey Stengel himself, retired as the Mets’ manager but doing some scouting for them out of his southern California home, scouted Chilcott personally at Antelope Valley College. Taylor went number one to the Yankees in 1991.

Why Chilcott and not Jackson? Two reasons: 1) Mets management, then-president George Weiss in particular, may have been discomfited by the Jackson’s taste for women not of his own race. 2) With their pitching development promising to start paying dividends enough, soon enough, the Mets needed a once-and-for-all catcher of the future, and Chilcott looked like that man.

Until he ruined his shoulder scrambling back to second base on a pickoff attempt at A-level ball, that is. Chilcott slogged through the minors, once reaching AAA-level, but he never really found his swing or his throwing arm again after that shoulder separation. Finally, after a deal to the Yankees and further struggle in their system, Chilcott called it a career. The injury kept him from possibly being part of the 1969 Miracle Mets. He never saw one day in the Show.

Neither did Taylor, picked number one by the Yankees in 1991, had two live minor league seasons, then destroyed his rotator cuff . . . in a fight begun to avenge his brother, who’d been beaten up and given serious head injuries by a troublemaker known to the family. Taylor never again found his live fastball and snapping curve; he missed being part of the Yankees’ late-1990s dynasty. He bounced on through the Seattle and Cleveland organisations before calling it a career in 2000.

Chilcott went into firefighting and, later and more permanently, real estate and home remodeling. Taylor went back to his native North Carolina, worked with his father in a brickyard, served time for cocaine trafficking. The word for several years has been that if incoming phone calls sound like sportswriters, he hangs up.

The third number one pick not to see even a minute worth of Show action doesn’t figure to end up like Brien Taylor, but his long-term prospects might seem a little fancier than Steve Chilcott’s.

Chilcott, too, sometimes pondered what might have been if he could have made it to the Mets with a couple of minor league teammates including Tug McGraw and Ken Singleton. Taylor, the most reliable reporting has said, can’t bring himself to think about such things.

“I’m a guy who loves a game, who had expectations, goals and dreams and then has had everything tumbling, and then everything was unmet,” Appel told BR. “Would I have loved to be pitching in the World Series? Absolutely. Some people have real struggles. I played baseball. I thought I was going to be great, and I wasn’t.”

Remarkably level-headed for a still young man whose baseball dreams got shredded inside his shoulder before he had a chance to prove what he might really have done, Appel will probably move forward successfully, having one more thing in common with Steve Chilcott—he’ll be reminded of what might have been, now and then, when his shoulder barks at him again.

BR says he’s looking forward to traveling to see his Astros friends and going back to school. Apparently, Appel was smarter than the average prospect with that $6.35 million signing bonus. ”Sometimes,” he said, “you end up exactly where you’re supposed to be.”

And don’t feel bad about calling him a bust. He doesn’t. His injuries and their psychology gave him something too many players don’t get near—perspective. It’ll shield him from the too-obvious often enough. “If you want to call me the biggest draft bust, you can call it that,” Appel said.

“If I never get to the big leagues, will it be a disappointment? Yes and no,” he continued. “That was a goal and a dream I had at one point, but that’s with stipulations that I’m healthy, I’m happy and doing something I love. If I get to the big leagues, what’s so great about the big leagues if you’re in an isolated place, you’re hurt and you’re emotionally unhappy? How much is that worth to you?”

It takes a lot of man, at any age, to admit that there really might be something more valuable than a World Series ring or multi-millions in the bank. By that measure, Appel’s already richer than his signing bonus, in a place enough athletes don’t see as soon as he has and too many can’t see as well as he does.

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