Former Stanford right-hander grew up in Houston, rooting for hometown team
HOUSTON -- With several members of his family, including his parents and grandparents, watching from the front row of a press conference room at Minute Maid Park, No. 1 overall Draft pick Mark Appel slipped on an Astros jersey and flashed a Texas-sized smile.
"It's been quite the road to get there," he said, "and I guess I'm home."
Less than two weeks after taking the Stanford right-hander with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, the Astros made his signing official. The Houston native will receive a $6.35 million signing bonus, which is well below the assigned slot value of $7.8 million.
"This is the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player and we hope we're investing a lot in him in the future," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We believe it's going to be a long-term relationship. This is the beginning step; it's not the end. It's very exciting."
Luhnow said the Appel signing could be a landmark day for an Astros franchise that has rebuilt its once-beleaguered Minor League system in recent years through trades and the Draft. Appel figures to be a centerpiece for the Astros when they return to contention.
"This is a big day for our organization," Luhnow said. "Any time you have a chance to pick first in the Draft, you have a chance to significantly improve your organization. We've done it twice in the last two years and we really believe Mark is the perfect fit for what we're trying to do here. The future's very bright in Houston."
Appel, who was born in Houston and grew up as an Astros fans, will report later in the week to work out at the team's Spring Training facility in Kissimmee, Fla., before likely going to short-season Tri-City to begin working his way to the Major Leagues.
"It's an honor to be here," said Appel, who will be in Major League camp with Houston next year. "So many emotions are running through me right now."
Luhnow said Appel could make a stop at Class A Quad Cities -- where he would join 2012 No. 1 overall pick Carlos Correa, a shortstop from Puerto Rico -- before likely reaching Double-A Corpus Christi by the end of the year. He'll be on a strict pitch count, but the team isn't revealing the exact innings limit.
How soon Appel reaches Houston depends on his performance and progress, but it's not a stretch to believe he could be pitching in the Astros rotation next year. Appel, though, hasn't ruled out reaching Houston this year.
"I think the Major Leagues would be awesome," he said. "Again, I don't know how realistic that is. Hopefully, it can be very realistic. A lot of it is out of my control. I'm just going to focus on going out and giving my best every time out."
Appel put on a uniform after being introduced to the media Wednesday and met several of the Astros while shagging balls during batting practice. He was escorted to the outfield by pitcher Jordan Lyles, who's only nine months older than Appel.
"It is surreal," Appel said. "It's just exciting, very cool to meet some of the guys. Hopefully, I'll get to be their teammates down the road."
The Astros scouted Appel heavily for two years and were impressed with the improvements he made on the mound and the strides he made physically when he returned to Stanford for his senior season after turning down the Pirates, who drafted him No. 8 overall last year.
He's shown terrific fastball command down in the zone and has an effective changeup and slider he's comfortable throwing in any count.
"I feel very healthy," Appel said. "I prepared in the offseason after I knew I was coming back to school last year that this would be my longest season to date. I knew with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement the Draft picks usually don't take all the way to the signing deadline to sign. I'm excited to get out there and pitch."
Scott Boras, who represents Appel, said the negotiations with the Astros went as smoothly as possible. He said the right-hander signed at his value rather than his slot -- a number that was skewed by the fact he was a college senior and was eager to pitch in his hometown.
"I think in this case, the city of Houston and the Houston Astros organization is going to be very pleased with Mark Appel," Boras said.
Appel grew up an Astros fan in Houston before moving to California at the age of 12. He played his youth ball at the Post Oak Little League and attended Astros games at the Astrodome and Minute Maid Park. Most of Appel's extended family lives in the Houston area, including his parents.
"We're elated," said his father, Patrick Appel. "It's always wonderful to see your son achieve his dreams and we're like any other parents, just excited for his success and excited for the bright future of the Houston Astros."
Appel, 21, went 10-4 with four complete games and a 2.12 ERA as a senior this season at Stanford. He recorded 130 strikeouts in his 106 1/3 innings pitched and allowed just a .203 opponents' batting average. He was one of 10 semifinalists for the National Pitcher of the Year Award as named by the College Baseball Hall of Fame.
Appel finished his Stanford career as the program's all-time strikeout leader and his 372 career strikeouts rank second among active NCAA pitchers. The Pac-12 Baseball Scholar-Athlete of the Year this season is sixth in program history with 28 career wins and fourth with 377 2/3 innings pitched.
"We really feel this organization is poised to take the next step a lot sooner than people believe we're going to, and Mark is a big part of that," Luhnow said.