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Appel's homecoming could mark return to winning ways

Houston native, top pick newest member of fast-improving farm for Luhnow's Astros

HOUSTON -- The Astros began this process a year ago with Stanford right-hander Mark Appel atop their draft board. Since then, they had debate after debate, comparing this player to Appel and then that one and then that other one. In the end, they never wavered on Appel.

"He checked all the boxes for us," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said.

He spoke those words moments after making Appel the No. 1 overall pick Thursday in the First-Year Player Draft. He raved about Appel, about his pure physical gifts, work ethic, smarts and intangibles the Astros believe will make him a cornerstone of a rotation -- and a franchise -- for years.

"That's exactly the type of player we need to be adding to the organization," Luhnow said. "He makes us significantly better."

Thursday was an important day in the history of the Astros. They're just the third team to have the overall No. 1 pick in back-to-back years, and the other two -- the Rays and Nationals -- were in the playoffs within two years.

The Astros have no idea if it'll happen that quickly, but they're also not about to put a ceiling on their best kids. And in every corner of their war room Thursday, there was a sense of optimism.

"To see someone consistently take a huge step forward every single year is very encouraging, and we think he's going to continue to do that," Astros scouting director Mike Elias said. "The sky's the limit."

When Houston businessman Jim Crane purchased the club 18 months ago, he promised to give his baseball staff the resources and freedom to do things right. He hired Luhnow as general manager after Luhnow did a phenomenal job running the Cardinals' farm system.

Now they've got a very good farm system, one that appears to be on the verge of delivering a stream of talent to the Major League team.

Appel was disappointed the Astros didn't take him a year ago. He grew up in Houston, attended games in the Astrodome and remembers when Minute Maid Park opened in 2000.

Even after his family moved to California when he was 12, he never gave up on the dream of pitching for his hometown team. He slipped all the way to eighth in the 2012 Draft and turned down $3.8 million from the Pirates.

"It's incredibly special," Appel said. "I'm really excited."

As the deadline for signing approached last summer, Appel and his agent, Scott Boras, had long conversations about his goals and whether or not turning down $3.8 million was the right thing to do.

"I just told him to be prepared for some criticism if he turned down the Pirates," Boras said. "People were going to call him greedy. They were going to say he wasn't competitive."

Boras was struck by Appel's resolve.

"How can anyone say that going back to get a Stanford degree is a bad thing?" Appel asked.

That attitude, that confidence was something that impressed Boras from the moment he first saw him pitch.

"I remember watching Mike Mussina pitch at 17," Boras said. "He had that blank look on his face. Some scouts don't like it. And that's what Mark has. Ironically, Mike ended up at Stanford too."

Boras saw that blank look as intensity and confidence and drive. He saw it as a young man who was not easy to rattle, a young man who simply went about his business.

When Appel decided once and for all to return to Stanford, Boras recommended a conditioning program. Meanwhile, Appel began working with his Stanford pitching coach, Rusty Filter, to improve his fastball command.

The Astros say everything got better. His fastball command was better. His changeup became an out-pitch. His breaking stuff was more consistent than ever. And the young man who turned down $3.8 million from the Pirates likely will get around $7.8 million to pitch for his hometown team.

"Welcome home," Luhnow told him Thursday.

"It's a kid's dream to go first in the country, first in the Draft and to be selected by your hometown team," Luhnow said. "It just doesn't get any better [than] that. It's also really a great opportunity for us."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U
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