Mark Appel, the first overall pick of the 2013 draft, is preparing for a comeback with the Phillies, according to Matt Gelb and Evan Drellich of The Athletic (subscription required). Just over three years ago, Appel announced that he was stepping away from baseball, but didn’t rule out a possible return in the future.
That time appears to be now, as Gelb/Drellich write that Appel is planning to report to the Phillies’ minor league spring camp. Appel has also worked out at Driveline Baseball during his three-plus years away from the game, so he has already taken some previous steps towards getting back on the mound.
Appel’s 1-1 status in 2013 represented the third time he was drafted by a big league team. The Tigers took a 15th-round flier on Appel in 2009 to see if they could convince him to break his commitment to Stanford, and the Pirates took Appel with the eighth overall pick of the 2012 draft. However, Appel’s drop to the eighth spot in the first place was due to his high asking price, and Appel returned for another year at Stanford after his representatives and the Pirates failed to reach an agreement on a contract.
That set the stage for the beginning of Appel’s pro career as the Astros top pick, though he was never able to pitch with much consistency throughout his days in the minor leagues. His early struggles led Houston to make a quick pivot by including Appel as part of a five-player package to the Phillies in a trade for Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz in December 2015. The change of scenery didn’t help Appel, and he soon ran into elbow and shoulder injuries that limited his ability to stay on the field.
Beyond the physical problems, Appel also faced a mental toll that was at least as significant, and he openly discussed his frustrations and the pressures he faced in trying to get his career on track with Bleacher Report’s Joon Lee. “I had high expectations. I didn’t live up to those for a number of reasons,” Appel said. “If you want to call me the biggest draft bust, you can call it that….If I never get to the big leagues, will it be a disappointment? Yes and no. 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?”
Appel made it as high as the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate, but didn’t reach the majors, recording a 5.06 ERA and 18.75% strikeout rate over 375 1/3 combined innings in the Philadelphia and Houston farm systems. Appel is one of seven first overall picks who have never appeared in a big league game, though obviously more recent picks like Spencer Torkelson, Adley Rutschman, and Royce Lewis are earlier along in their professional careers.
Still only 29 years old, Appel would be one of the all-time late bloomer stories if he was able to make it all the way back and find some big league success. Most importantly, it’s a terrific sign that Appel is in a good enough personal space just to make the attempt, and find some closure for himself in baseball.