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A periodic look at some of the most intriguing draft prospects in sports
Mark Appel has been branded.
Not as the best pitcher in college baseball, though the 6'5" righthander, who had 48 strikeouts in 30 innings over his first four starts this season for No. 9 Stanford, is almost certainly that. Not as the top pitcher available in the major league draft this June, even though he's a seemingly can't-miss prospect with a fastball that sits comfortably between 93 and 96 mph and a big-league-ready slider. Not even as the prototypical Stanford student-athlete, one who will graduate early with a degree in management, science and technology.
No, Appel is the guy who turned down $3.8 million. He might as well wear a T-shirt with that figure emblazoned on it, because the sum of what most people know about him is, well, that sum. Last June the Pirates offered Appel that amount after selecting him with the eighth pick in the 2012 draft. He passed on the money and returned to Stanford for his senior year, making him the only one of last year's top 31 picks who didn't sign. For that, the blogosphere labeled Appel as shortsighted, dumb and a pawn of superagent Scott Boras, who acted as an unofficial adviser to the Appel camp. "When I made that decision, people only looked at the money," Appel says. "I also factored in that I would get to be here at Stanford, which is like home, for another year, and I would get another chance to help my team get to [the College World Series], and I would get my degree."
Some people won't buy that. The belief lingers among some fans that Appel only returned to school because the Pirates didn't pay him what he wanted. There is no way to disprove that, so Appel doesn't try. Walking across the Stanford campus last week on a bluebird day, he responded to a question about how he could have turned down $3.8 million by opening his arms, as if extending an embrace to his sun-soaked surroundings. "This," he says, "is pretty good too."
APPEL WILL forever be known as the first test case of baseball's new draft rules, which went into effect last year. The guidelines, revamped in the collective bargaining agreement signed after the 2011 season and designed to keep big-market teams with later picks from throwing around big bonuses, now include slotted signing bonuses (amounts are dictated by draft position) and a semihard cap on the total amount teams can spend on all their picks. A club can sign a player for more than the slot amount and blow the cap, but it will pay a tax and/or lose future draft picks, depending on how far over the cap it goes.
As the 2012 draft approached, Appel was projected to go No. 1 overall to the Astros, the team he followed growing up in Houston, and receive a signing bonus somewhere near the slot amount of $7.2 million. But teams were reportedly concerned about negotiating with the notoriously hard-driving Boras, so Appel fell to Pittsburgh—and its slotted bonus of $2.9 million. Asked if he was disappointed on draft day, the usually affable Appel tenses up and says, "I feel like I've talked a lot about that already." His dismay was clear when he skipped the Pirates' postdraft media conference call.
Appel negotiated with the Pirates right up to the July 13 deadline for draftees to sign, and the team eventually upped its bonus offer to $3.8 million. That would have sent Pittsburgh over its bonus cap and triggered a tax, but the team felt Appel was worth it. It was assumed he would take the money.
"When my junior year ended, I was ready to go [to professional baseball]. I felt the time was right," says Appel. But as talks with the Pirates dragged on, he began to consider a return to Stanford. Going back to school would give him the opportunity to erase the memory of a disappointing end to his junior season, which saw the Cardinal fall short of a trip to Omaha with a super regional loss to Florida State. That series included the worst outing of Appel's college career: a four-inning, seven-run disaster in a 17--1 loss to the Seminoles. Returning to school would also allow him to exit with the safety net of a Stanford degree.