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Workouts bring Appel back home to Houston

2013 No. 1 overall Draft pick returns to hometown for offseason conditioning

HOUSTON -- Mark Appel grew up in Houston cheering for the Astros before his father's job whisked the family away to California for a new life, which for him would eventually include a stellar four-year career at Stanford and the label as one of the top college pitchers in the country.

Things have certainly come full circle for Appel, who recently moved back to Houston permanently and this week began working out at Minute Maid Park with the Astros -- the team that paid him $6.35 million after it took him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft.

Appel, who is ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the Astros' farm system, is among a handful of players -- both Major Leaguers and Minor Leaguers -- who began workouts with strength and conditioning coach Jake Beiting this week. Thursday was only Appel's second day of workouts at the ballpark, but it marked another step closer to reaching the Majors.

"The fact we have a lot of guys in our organization that are motivated and determined to bring a World Series to Houston is awesome," Appel said. "I'm definitely part of that. I'm just as motivated and just as hungry to be a part of a championship team. Hopefully that's not too far away."

After going 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA as a senior at Stanford this year and finishing as the program's all-time strikeout leader (372), Appel signed quickly with the hometown Astros and went 3-1 with a 3.79 ERA between short-season Tri-City and Class A Quad Cities in his pro debut.

Appel threw a combined 144 1/3 innings between Stanford and the Minor Leagues, which prompted the Astros to shut him down in August. He'll be in Major League camp next year, but it might be a stretch to expect him to pitch in Houston in 2014. Don't be surprised to see Appel start at Double-A Corpus Christi.

"I feel like if I'm looking too far ahead, I'll be putting the cart before the horse," Appel said. "I want to focus on today, focus on the things I needed to do today, which is work out here in the weight room and also work out tomorrow and work out the next day. Just take it day by day and focus on the process. I trust the end of the tunnel will finally get there at some point. It's a goal of mine and I'm excited for it, but it's not my focus right now."

Appel just needs to look around and see how close he could be to wearing an Astros uniform. Michael Wacha, who was drafted by the Cardinals with the No. 19 pick in 2012, was the National League Championship Series Most Valuable Player Award winner last month. Kevin Gausman, taken No. 4 that year, made his debut with the Orioles last summer. Appel was selected at No. 8 in the 2012 Draft by Pittsburgh but didn't sign.

"I thought it was surprising Michael Wacha went 19th overall," Appel said. "I thought he was an amazing talent. I had the opportunity to play with him with Team USA after my sophomore year on the collegiate national team, and he was one of the better pitches there.

"His changeup was devastating back then and it's devastating now, and I think a lot of people realize that. His command was what really propelled him in the postseason. It's cool seeing guys like him and Kevin Gausman and some of those guys from the 2012 Draft in the big leagues. It's exciting to see some of my peers and colleagues and friends pitching in the Majors, and hopefully I can be one of those guys in the future."

The Astros have amassed an impressive stable of young starters, including Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, Dallas Keuchel, Brad Peacock, Mike Foltynewicz, Lance McCullers Jr., Alex White and Asher Wojciechowski, to name a few. With that depth, they will be in no rush to hurry Appel, who might have to pitch a full year in the Minor Leagues before getting the call.

"I'm just another piece to the puzzle," he said. "I'm out here working as hard as everyone else, and I want to be another guy, be a good teammate to all my teammates and be a good player to the coaches and put my head down and work hard and get after it."

Appel, who left Houston for California with his family at age 12, 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.

Appel hasn't been able to spend quality time with his family during the past 10 years or see them as often as would have liked, so being able to live at home and see his parents and grandparents frequently while working with the Astros is about as fulfilling as it gets.

"It's crazy," Appel said. "It's a tribute to God's hands in my life. We moved to California when I was a kid, and I didn't want to [move]. I had all my friends in Texas. Because of that, if we didn't move, I probably wouldn't have had gone to Stanford, and if I didn't go to Stanford, I probably wouldn't have been back here. It's cool how things have come full circle."

Brian McTaggart is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog, Tag's Lines. Follow @brianmctaggart on Twitter.
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