HOUSTON (AP) Mark Appel struggled in a forgettable 2014.
As this season approaches, the Houston Astros believe the right-hander has grown because of that adversity, and general manager Jeff Luhnow says the top pick in the 2013 amateur draft could make his major league debut this year.
”I think he will have a good experience in big league camp. He’ll open some eyes, and I do believe that he has a chance to be with this team in 2015,” Luhnow said.
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This comes after a season that was hampered from the start after Appel missed a big chunk of spring training following an appendectomy. He started at Class A Lancaster, where he pitched so poorly the Astros sent him back to Florida for extended spring training.
He returned to Lancaster about five weeks later feeling healthy, but the results didn’t change. Appel’s tough start wasn’t all because of his surgery, but he knows it was a factor.
”That was the first domino of a few things that happened,” he said. ”It obviously set me back physically a little bit, and the first probably month of the season I didn’t really recover physically. (After extended spring training) I was good physically, but mentally I still wasn’t quite ready and kind of struggled a little bit.”
He ended up making 12 starts for Lancaster and finished 2-5 with a staggering 9.74 ERA.
It was in this period that Appel got down and had to remind himself of who he was and what got him to that point, the pitcher who was good enough at Stanford to command a $6.35 million signing bonus.
”I was really struggling with kind of a negative outlook on life and it was difficult to go to the field every day and work hard,” he said. ”And that switched once I realized internally: `Mark you’re kind of doing this the wrong way. You’ve been called to do it the right way.”’
He was also helped by words of wisdom from an assistant coach.
”He said: `When you’re pitching in the big leagues I don’t think anyone’s going to remember what you did in Lancaster,”’ Appel said. ”So it kind of put it in perspective. Yes, I went through some struggles early on in my minor league career, but if I come out of those a better person and a better player because of it, it was all worth it.”
Despite his problems, the Astros promoted him to Double-A Corpus Christi where finally started pitching like he had in his final season at Stanford when he was 10-4 with four complete games and a 2.12 ERA.
In seven games in Corpus Christi, he posted a 3.69 ERA and struck out 38 in 39 innings.
After the season he went to the Arizona Fall League where he was even better, finishing with a 2.61 ERA in seven games where opponents hit just .167.
When Luhnow sent Appel back to Florida in late April, he told him his season wouldn’t be judged on how he started but rather how he finished the season.
”I think that was the important part was where he ended,” Luhnow said. ”I don’t consider last year a bad year for Mark Appel. I consider last year a learning opportunity and continued development and it’s going to help him going forward. He’s ready to take the next step and I think it will happen this year.”
Appel agreed and said it’s hard to list all the things he learned in this winding season.
”Sometimes I feel like what didn’t I learn would be a better question,” he said. ”Just really understanding where my priorities fall and what I’m doing this for. It’s something that’s meant to be fun. It’s something I’m supposed to enjoy and I wasn’t really doing that too much in Lancaster.”
A season like the one Appel had in 2014 is valuable in Luhnow’s eyes because elite athletes who have spent their entire lives as the best player on the field often haven’t had to deal with many setbacks.
”We know what Mark is capable of doing now because he’s had adversity, he’s handled it well, he’s overcome it and he’s made himself a better person and better player as a result of it,” Luhnow said. ”And that’s going to benefit him both this year and in his major league career which certainly is very bright.”
There were times last season when the 23-year-old Appel doubted himself, but his finish in Arizona helped boost his confidence.
”It was encouraging,” he said. ”It was something that I really felt like I needed to do and go out and prove that the beginning of this season wasn’t who I know I am as a pitcher and I wanted to go out and show who Mark Appel really is. I felt like I did that and am really using this offseason to build off that.”