Twins face tough draft decision

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 28, 2012 - 8:21 AM

Is Stanford pitcher Mark Appel just too nice? That's one concern as the Twins ponder their No. 2 spot in the draft.

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Stanford's Mark Appel

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LOS ANGELES - Stanford pitcher Mark Appel would seem to be everything a team could want in next week's amateur draft, especially a club as desperate for pitching as the Twins, who hold the No. 2 pick.

Appel is a 6-5 righthander with a fastball that reaches 99 miles per hour. He developed a slider and changeup under Stanford pitching coach Rusty Filter, the same guy who coached Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State before the Nationals made Strasburg the No. 1 pick in 2009.

"Characterwise and work ethicwise, they're very similar," Filter said this month before a game at UCLA. "They're both really nice young men. Stephen was very, very competitive earlier on -- almost to a fault -- where Mark has learned as he's gone on to get more competitive fire."

That's one concern scouts have about Appel. He might be too nice. It's taken some convincing to get him to pitch inside, for example, because he never wanted to hit anyone.

"His stuff is good enough, but what always was questioned was the heart, the ability to finish," said longtime Stanford associate head coach Dean Stotz. "He's such a good kid off the field -- I mean, he's Tim Tebow off the field -- that you want to know if there's this innate competitive toughness."

Many wonder if Appel has the tenacity to develop into a true major league ace. Like the other top players in this year's draft class, he still has some perceived flaws, which is why no consensus No. 1 choice has emerged.

Appel is a Houston native, so the Astros are a good bet to take him at No. 1, but experts agree that the player with the most ceiling in this draft is Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton.

If Houston takes Buxton, Appel might be sitting there for the Twins at No. 2, but there are indications they are just as excited about University of San Francisco righthander Kyle Zimmer.

"There's just no easy choice this year," Baseball America's John Manuel said.

Houston roots

Appel lived in Houston until his parents moved to Northern California when he was 12. He has vivid memories of going to the Astrodome, cheering for Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, and now there's a strong chance the favorite team from his childhood will make him the top pick in the draft.

"It definitely has crossed my mind, and that would just be a huge blessing if God gave me that opportunity," Appel said. "But I understand that I want to play professional baseball no matter where it is, and Houston would just kind of be the cherry on top of that."

Appel, 20, has come a long way over the past two years. He was mostly a reliever at Monte Vista High School, where he also excelled in basketball. But with a promising arm and good grades, he went to Stanford, where he spent his first season pitching out of the bullpen.

After his freshman year, Appel went to the New England Collegiate Baseball League -- a step below the Cape Cod League -- and concentrated on developing his off-speed pitches. He returned with a brand new changeup and a refined slider that set him up to be Stanford's No. 1 starter as a sophomore.

Appel was a late bloomer, but then again so was Strasburg, who served as San Diego State's closer his freshman year. Filter once introduced the two righthanders, pointing out all the things they had in common.

"It was really cool because every time [Strasburg] pitches, he's just a beast on the mound," Appel said. "And seeing him as a person -- how quiet, how soft-spoken, how humble he was -- was really kind of encouraging. I like to think of myself as a high-character guy, and that's something we've worked on is kind of being a jerk on the mound."

The lessons appear to be sticking. Scouts wanted to see more dominance, and in his past seven starts he is 5-0 with a 1.36 ERA, including 61 strikeouts and only eight walks in 53 innings.

"He'll show you three above-average to plus pitches, and he'll hold his stuff deep into games," said ESPN draft analyst Keith Law. "He's a really bright kid. He's pretty athletic. He's got most of the things teams are looking for.

"If he dominated, I think it would be a no-brainer that he'd go first, and he may anyway, but I think the only reason we're even talking about him is the performance had never quite matched the full scouting report."

Solid makeup

Many scouts don't believe any of the players in this year's draft class would have been picked in the top seven last year, when a host of frontline pitchers were available, including UCLA's Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, Virginia's Danny Hultzen and Oklahoma high school phenom Dylan Bundy.

This year, the pitcher with the most upside might be Lucas Giolito from Harvard-Westlake (Calif.) High School, but he sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in early March. He avoided surgery, and the Twins are among the teams attending his current throwing sessions, but they are unlikely to gamble on his elbow at No. 2.

"Coming into the draft, I thought the Twins and Lucas Giolito were a match made in heaven, and then Lucas Giolito gets hurt," Manuel said.

For now, Appel appears to be the most polished pitcher available, but he will have to overcome the industry's stigma about Stanford. For all the school's on-field success, the Cardinal has produced some first-round pitching duds.

Yes, Stanford alumni include Jack McDowell (1987), Mike Mussina (1990), Rick Helling (1992), Jeremy Guthrie (2002) and Drew Storen (2009), but among its first-round flops are Jeff Austin (fourth overall pick by the Royals in 1998), Justin Wayne (fourth overall by the Expos in 2000) and Greg Reynolds (second overall by the Rockies in 2006).

On April 13, Stanford let Appel throw 149 pitches in a complete-game victory against Oregon. That immediately raised red flags for teams such as the Twins, who keep pitch limits closer to 100 in hopes of avoiding injuries.

"We took a lot of abuse for that, but he wasn't coming out of that game," Stotz said. "In hindsight, we probably wish we wouldn't have done it, but for a scout, everything that you questioned about him was answered in that event."

It speaks to Appel's toughness, but there's another important variable to the Twins -- Appel's adviser, Scott Boras, a notoriously tough negotiator who helped Strasburg get a record four-year, $15.1 million contract out of the 2009 draft.

Baseball's new collective bargaining agreement has severe penalties for teams that outspend the commissioner's recommended slot bonuses. But if Appel falls to the Twins, Boras could still push for them to spend more than the allotted $6.2 million, even if it cuts into how much they can spend on other draft picks.

At least Appel fits the Twins profile. Historically, they have been drawn to players who are good people off the field, and as General Manager Terry Ryan said, "Makeup is the separator any year."

Appel is a management science and engineering major who has definite plans to finish his degree, as most Stanford players do. He's also deeply religious.

"We were at Washington, and he's on the bench reading the Bible because he's got three hours to do this, and that's what he enjoys doing," Stotz said. "I think he's totally at peace because he senses whatever the Lord's will is, is ultimately going to happen."

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