Mark Appel isn’t returning to professional baseball to try to avoid being part of an unfortunate statistic or because he’s certain he can win a Cy Young Award. Nonetheless, the former No. 1 overall pick will be in Clearwater this week as he was drawn back to the Philadelphia Phillies by his love of the game.
Now 29, Appel was the No. 1 overall selection by the Houston Astros in the 2013 MLB Draft following a dominant collegiate career at Stanford. The Phillies acquired him in the December 2015 trade that sent Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz to the Astros, and also netted then-general manager Matt Klentak a return of Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Tom Eshelman and Harold Arauz.
Appel walked away from the Phillies after the 2017 season that saw him post a 5.27 ERA in 17 starts for the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs. But while Appel was burned out mentally and physically at that point, you get the sense that he never stopped dreaming of being a pitcher at the major league level.
“…Probably by the end of the 2018 season – it’s weird because I wasn’t playing so it didn’t feel like a season – I was starting to kind of question what would it take for me to play again,” Appel told reporters Monday afternoon. “It seemed clear that I still had a desire and I wanted to figure out how to get healthy.”
And so after meeting with multiple specialists, Appel had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder on Oct. 5, 2018. The procedure was performed by Dr. John Conway in Fort Worth, Texas. It helped to fix a partially torn labrum and rotator cuff in his throwing shoulder, injuries he had dealt with for much of the two seasons he pitched in the Phillies minor league system.
Since that surgery, he has been working his way back. He did some work at Driveline Baseball, and called then-interim general manager Ned Rice in November of 2020 to say that he was considering a comeback. Rice was pleased with the news and told him to call the organization again if he was still interested come January. That happened, and he’s enjoyed his conversations since with new general manager Sam Fuld, a fellow Stanford graduate.
Appel has yet to face live hitting, but he said he’s touched 94 or 95 mph in bullpen sessions, and is consistently hitting 92 mph. Considering he’s still building up and doesn’t yet have the adrenaline of actually face batters, Appel is pretty happy with how he’s progressed thus far.
So what will Appel’s role be? He was drafted as a starter, but Matt Gelb and Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported over the weekend that prior to Appel walking away from the game, the Phillies had pondered the idea of trying him in the bullpen.
“We haven’t had that conversation, but I am definitely open for anything,” Appel said of his role. “I’ve had some conversations with some of the minor league pitching coordinators and Josh Bonifay, but the Phillies haven’t had their eyes on me, so in a way this spring is going to be a kind of little tryout to see what I have. We’ll get to have conversations about how they see me best fit in the organization. And I’m excited for anything.
“I love starting,” Appel continued. “I was a reliever in high school, believe it or not. And [I was a reliever] in my freshman year of college. And so, I enjoyed that too. I’d love to, at some point – assuming I can stay healthy, play well and build my arm strength up – be a starter. I believe that, if everything is going great, I do think that I have the skills to be a starter. I’m not saying that I have to be a starter or nothing at all. I would love to be able to help out in whatever role that is, whether that’s back to the bullpen…little relief…long relief…whatever it may be. I just love playing and I’m excited to play again.”
His performance – and ability to remain healthy – in spring training will determine where Appel, who will turn 30 in July, opens the season. One would think if he’s successful he’ll begin at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, which will open their season on May 4.
Appel says that regardless of what level he pitches at in 2021, he’ll consider it a success if he can focus on improving as a pitcher, rather than his health. There’s no doubt, though, if he’s able to pitch well enough to make his major league debut in 2021 or at any point in the future, it would be a hell of a story.
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