The recipe for a draft disaster is there. Mark Appel was the No. 1 overall pick by Houston a week ago, and as a senior at Stanford he is not bound to the July 12 signing deadline, which means he could take a hard-line stance, leave the Astros in budgetary limbo and wreck their entire draft plan.
Thankfully for the Astros, that's not going to happen.
The Astros and Appel are nearing a deal for the 6-foot-5 right-hander, sources told Yahoo! Sports. One club source expects Appel to be signed by the middle of next week.
It will amount to a big win for both sides. The Astros add a polished power pitcher to a growing cache of huge arms, with 101-mph-flame-throwing starter Mike Foltynewicz and Jarred Cosart atop the list. And Appel, a Houston native, not only gets to play at home but ensures that his big risk pays off. After turning down a $3 million-plus contract as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2012 draft, he parlayed 106 1/3 innings into a degree in management science and engineering as well as a bonus expected to be twice as big.
While the risk for the Astros was not big, it was palpable. Appel's agent, Scott Boras, cemented his reputation as the shrewdest in the business with No. 1 overall picks, with Tim Belcher not signing in 1983 and Brien Taylor ushering in the era of massive signing bonuses in 1991. Appel could have demanded a significant majority of the $11,698,800 the Astros have allotted to sign draft choices and put the team in a compromising position: give him what he wants and run the risk of losing other draft picks because of lesser bonuses, or give others their desired money and potentially miss out on a vital building block.
The Astros chose Appel over Kris Bryant, Jonathan Gray, Colin Moran, Clint Frazier and Austin Meadows anyway, convinced the fit was too right to let such a potential pitfall – or fear of Boras – sway them.
"He and I both understand this is a long-term working relationship, and that the goal is for his client to play in Houston for a long time," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said earlier this week. "For either of us to risk that for some short-term gain is not wise. We both know that. I think Scott is very good at what he does. He advocates for his players and gets great deals. We're good at what we do, too."
Draft week offered the Astros front office the ability to momentarily forget about their major league team's struggles and do what they expect to be their lifeblood: draft and develop players. In seven years with St. Louis as scouting director and farm director, Luhnow turned a major league-best 45 draft picks into major leaguers – a number still growing with leftovers from his tenure. These weren't fill-ins, either. St. Louis' homegrown talent ranges from Shelby Miller to Allen Craig, Lance Lynn and Matt Carpenter.
The Astros settled on Appel only minutes before the pick. Inside the draft room, only Luhnow, owner Jim Crane, assistant GM David Stearns, scouting director Mike Elias and national cross-checker David Post knew it was Appel until about 60 seconds before they selected him. The organization had worked the phones, inquiring about potential bonus cost, weighing the money and the value, ultimately seeing if anyone could usurp Appel, who Luhnow said was No. 1 on the Astros' board from almost the beginning, even though they passed him up with the top pick in 2012.
"No one could get over the edge," Luhnow said.
Instead of taking the player thought to be the best talent in the draft last season, center fielder Byron Buxton, the Astros opted for shortstop Carlos Correa. Buxton is hitting .343/.433/.573 and emerging as the best prospect in baseball. Correa is no slouch. Also in the Midwest League, he is at .291/.395/.419 – and is almost an entire year younger than Buxton. Choosing him over Buxton allowed the Astros to divert extra money to signing Lance McCullers Jr. (2.10 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 55 2/3 innings at low-A) and Rio Ruiz (.216/.316/.323 at low-A).
Soon they will add Appel to the stash, a testament to how the new draft rules have worked out well for them. Like any market with a forced ceiling, the system proved itself corrupt last year when Pittsburgh was forced to blow its entire budget on Appel or let him go back into the draft. Boras wasn't going to settle for a lesser dollar amount when he understood the value of a big, strong, intelligent, proven college right-hander was significantly more than the Pirates were allowed to offer – nor should he have.
Despite the league's intentions of the new system filtering the best talent toward the top of the draft, the opposite happened in 2012. It taught baseball that the benefit to the worst teams wasn't giving them the best player, per se. It offered the greatest number of avenues down which to proceed.
The choice this year was Mark Appel. And next week, when he slips on an Astros jersey, they'll hope it was a choice well made.
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