HOUSTON -- No matter what kind of labels have been placed on him throughout the years -- from a can't-miss No. 1 overall pick in 2013 to the definition of unfulfilled potential -- or whether he ever picks up a baseball again, Mark Appel is at peace.
He's at peace with his decision to take an "indefinite break" from baseball and pursue opportunities outside the game. He's at peace knowing his life can't be defined by 60 feet, six inches and the best is still likely yet to come. And he's content knowing baseball is still there, though it'll have to take a backseat for a while -- maybe forever.
Appel, taken by the Astros with the top pick in the 2013 Draft out of Stanford, was expected to be at the core of Houston's baseball rejuvenation, which culminated in a World Series championship last year. Instead, Appel struggled with his pitching, confidence and health and was eventually traded to the Phillies. He said it was "bittersweet" watching the Astros win the Fall Classic.
With the start of Spring Training just two weeks away, Appel has told the Phillies he's not coming. In an interview with MLB.com on Wednesday, the 26-year-old sounded like a man ready to clear his head and embrace new challenges, as well as those who are close to him.
"I know that I need to take some time to just reevaluate some things and get healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually -- just all around want to have good practices in my life," he said. "I think there are times where playing baseball when you're hurt, when you're on the DL, even when you're playing and you're in the Minors and you're there for a while, it can feel pretty isolating. You're away from all the people that you love the most, and I think I just realized I wasn't excited about going back to play."
If Appel doesn't reach the Majors, he'd join Brien Taylor of the Yankees (1991) and Steve Chilcott of the Mets (1966) as the only No. 1 overall picks to not play in the big leagues.
• These Top 3 Draft picks never made it to Majors
That didn't seem possible when the Astros took Appel No. 1 in 2013 -- one pick before future National League Most Valuable Player Kristopher Bryant. The Astros signed Appel to a $6.35 million bonus, which general manager Jeff Luhnow called "the most significant investment the Astros have made in their history in an amateur player" at the time. Appel was ranked No. 2 on MLB.com's 2012 Top 100 Draft Prospects list, behind only Georgia prep outfielder Byron Buxton. He was No. 1 on the 2013 list.
But Appel struggled in the Minor Leagues, posting a 6.91 ERA during his first full season in pro ball in 2014, including a forgettable stint at Class A Lancaster. The hitter-friendly California League didn't do Appel any favors. He had a 4.37 ERA in 25 starts between Double-A and Triple-A in '15 before the Astros dealt him in December of that year as part of a package to get Ken Giles from the Phillies.
Meanwhile, injuries mounted. Appel underwent a surprise appendectomy in 2014, had bone-spur surgery in '16 and suffered shoulder inflammation last season. He posted a 5.01 ERA over two seasons at Lehigh Valley, the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate. He said his shoulder still doesn't feel right.
"I made the decision a couple of weeks ago to step away," Appel said. "I kind of let it sit and told my family and a few close friends. … When you graduate from Stanford and you start having struggles in the Minors and you feel like you're older than everybody where you are, you're kind of wondering what's going on. I have interests outside of baseball, like business and things like that."
Appel, who spent much of his childhood in Houston and lives in the city with his brother, John, said he plans to apply to business school. Maybe at Stanford, or in his hometown, at Rice. He's eyeing an internship in the business world and has been busy networking.
"That sounds really exciting and figuring out what I want to do, and God willing if I end up back in a uniform and playing baseball, that will be great work experience for life after baseball," he said. "If I know I'm not going to play baseball again and I've thrown my last pitch, I have a lot of peace about that, too. It's kind of hard to know what the future is, but I just kind of know what I need to be doing right now."
Since the news broke he was stepping away from the game in a story by Bleacher Report earlier Thursday, Appel said former teammates have been reaching out to him, including Astros pitcher Lance McCullers and catcher Evan Gattis.
"He's a guy I had one Spring Training with," Appel said of Gattis. "It's just cool to see the amount of character the guys have."
Appel plans to attend games at Minute Maid Park this summer and cheer on McCullers and Carlos Correa, who went No. 1 in the Draft in 2012 and is considered the top shortstop in the game. Going No. 1 overall, Appel said, brought pressure.
"Growing up, I was always kind of a perfectionist, which gave me a lot of opportunities. But it also had its downsides -- where if something doesn't go exactly right, you work hard or try to figure out what's going on, and sometimes that can put you in a place where you're putting more pressure and it kind of spirals," he said.
There will be no pressure this summer. Appel is traveling and plans to take in some movies and hang out with his family, which has been supportive of his decision. He's thrilled Stanford roommate Stephen Piscotty is now playing with the Oakland A's and will be making frequent trips to Texas. He says he still loves baseball.
"If I ever get to come back and pick up a baseball again, I'll do it when I'm excited and I'm ready to help a team win some games and do it when I want to do it and don't feel the burden and pressure of other people's expectations," he said. "Going back to Spring Training and the season this year, that's what I think people expect me to do. I don't think that's a good enough reason."