Mark Appel has thrown his last pitch in a Stanford uniform.
That might be the only thing that's 100-percent certain regarding Appel, the big right-hander who is entering his second straight June as a potential No. 1 overall Draft pick. Appel beat UCLA on Friday, allowing one run on three hits and two walks over eight innings while striking out nine. Stanford did not receive an at-large bid for postseason play, so Appel's days as the school's Friday night ace -- a reign that lasted three years -- are over.
What happens beyond that remains to be seen. The First-Year Player Draft will be held June 6-8, and just as he was last year, Appel is very much in the discussion to go to the Astros at No. 1. Most believe that if Houston opts instead for Oklahoma right-hander Jonathan Gray, the Cubs will take Appel with the second pick.
By now, most know the story. Appel was the top college pitcher in last year's Draft and was arguably the best prospect overall. He ended up being taken No. 8 overall by Pittsburgh, but he didn't sign, turning down the Pirates' offer and instead returning to Stanford for his senior year. The reaction, one can imagine, wasn't particularly kind, with many painting the Scott Boras-advised talent as one who only cared about money.
"I tried to shield myself from it," Appel said. "But when you're on Twitter and anyone can say anything behind a keyboard without having to say it to your face, people will show their true colors. I saw a lot of people calling me greedy and things like that. Initially, it affected me, because I don't think anyone likes it when people don't like you. Then I realized that these people don't know me. All they know is I turned down $3.8 million.
"I'd love to get to know people who don't like me for whatever reason. Life is more than about how much money you make or how long your career is. What lasts is your relationships. Coming back, I realized how important it is to stay true to who you are, that integrity, regardless of who's watching. It showed me that the perception isn't always what's true. The majority of the people who just Google my name will perceive that I'm a greedy person and all I care about is money when I know that couldn't be further from the truth. I can't control what they say, what they do, what they think. I know what's true and that's what I have to hold my hope to."
Returning to school certainly had risk involved. Appel could have been hurt or he could have performed poorly, adversely impacting his Draft stock. In either of those scenarios, the Pirates' offer could have ended up looking very good. Of course, that didn't happen, and Appel was actually better than he was as a junior, finishing 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA, a .203 batting average against, 130 strikeouts and just 23 walks in 106 1/3 innings. A year ago, there may have been whispers about why he wasn't as dominant, given his pure stuff. There has been none of that in 2013.
"As an athlete, you always want to improve on your previous year," Appel said. "For the past six or seven years, I've done that every year. That's why I knew it wasn't a big deal, and I didn't think I'd be losing out [by not going to] pro ball. I knew my motivation, my work ethic was there, and I could really improve my game back in college. I know I've improved on some stuff from last year. I've been keeping the ball down more, I've been pitching inside better. It's not where I want to be, but it's in the right direction."
Two college pitchers from last year's first round have already been called up to the big leagues. Kevin Gausman, the No. 4 pick, has made two starts for the Orioles. Michael Wacha, the No. 19 pick, is slated to make his Major League debut for the Cardinals on Thursday. There are many who believe Appel could have joined them had he signed, but he said he doesn't have any regrets.
"I remember watching Spring Training, seeing Wacha was pitching great, following some of my buddies from previous summers, some guys from Stanford," Appel said. "It was cool to see them play, competing against big leaguers. I thought, 'That'll be cool next year.' I never got jealous, because I knew being at Stanford was exactly where I needed to be."
He feels more prepared for what lies ahead. Appel relies heavily on his faith to drive him and direct him, and it's clear that focus helped him deal with the attention that came post-Draft a year ago.
"My worth isn't bound in a long baseball career or making a lot of money," Appel explained. "My hope and value are already taken care of. A big difference between early in my career and now is when I'm asked, 'If baseball were to end today, would you be OK with that?' My freshman year, I would've said no. Now, if baseball were to end today, would I be able to accept that? Yeah, it would be extremely tough, but I wouldn't feel lost, because if for whatever reason I'm not playing baseball, that really frees me to not live up to any expectations or hype and not worry about what people say or think."
It's not that Appel is going to walk away from the game anytime soon. He's quick to point out his goals remain the same -- to play in the big leagues for as long as he can -- and that going back to Stanford for his senior year will act as a good steppingstone in the end. And after enduring that onslaught of attention, much of it negative, having gone through the "top Draft prospect" experience last year, he's pretty sure he's ready for what lies ahead.
"I think it helped," Appel said about last year. "I think, initially, it was interesting in a sense, just different from the expectations I had. I think it was good that I went through that. I learned a lot about perception and reality.
"Realistically, you have to do what is best for your career, your teammates, your friends, your family. Being back at Stanford, knowing that everyone is saying, 'What's he doing? He has to go out and do it all over again.' I think it will prepare me for the next level. There are going to be tons of people who are going to add pressure to you because you're a high Draft pick. But this year has helped me remove the outside pressures and expectations. It becomes more focused and removes all those distractions that keep you from being your best."
The First-Year Player Draft will begin on June 6, starting with the Draft preview show on MLB.com and MLB Network at 6 p.m. ET. Live Draft coverage from MLB Network's Studio 42 begins at 7 p.m., with the top 73 picks being streamed on MLB.com and broadcast on MLB Network. Rounds 3-10 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 7, beginning with a preview show at 12:30 p.m., and Rounds 11-40 will be streamed live on MLB.com on June 8, starting at 1 p.m.
MLB.com's coverage includes Draft Central, the Top 100 Draft Prospects list and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players. You can also keep up to date by following @MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.