In many ways, Mark Appel's life today is just like it has been for the past few years. He's a student-athlete who walks comfortably among classmates on Stanford's campus, spending his fall preparing for another season as the ace of the Cardinal's staff.
"It hasn't really been that much different than the years past, except I know more what to expect, how hard we have to work in the fall to accomplish the goals we want to have in the spring," Appel said.
At the same time, things aren't exactly as before. It's not often that a player who was considered at or near the top of a Draft class as a college junior returns for his senior season.
A year ago at this time, Appel was ranked No. 1 on MLB.com's Draft Top 50. He's there again now, returning to campus after not signing with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who took him No. 8 overall.
"I don't think about the Draft at all, what happened over the summer," Appel said. "The guys here keep me grounded and humbled. We're working as a team to keep getting better."
That team is different than it was a year ago, though there are constant reminders of the past, as well as what could have been for the big right-hander. Stanford players who do go the pro route after their junior season often head back in the fall to work toward getting their degrees. Appel has run into old teammates Stephen Piscotty, the Cardinals' supplemental first-round pick, and Kenny Diekroeger, now with the Kansas City Royals after going in the fourth round.
"It's a little strange," Appel said. "For the most part, I see guys who come back, finish their degree and workout, every year. I understand what they're going through. Kenny tells me has too much time on his hands because he's so used to the 7 a.m. workouts and being at the field all weekend during the fall."
That could've been Appel this fall, heading to class but not to the field. He could have accepted the Pirates' offer and started his pro career. But in a world that's often full of could-haves and regrets, Appel does not appear to have any.
"Whenever I think about big decisions I have to make in life, I try to imagine what it would be like if I make one decision or another," Appel explained. "I try to use past experiences I have to help me make that decision. I thought about signing vs. coming back. Coming back, based on the last three years, that's something that I love doing. Being out there with the guys, going to class -- as much as doing homework sucks, it's part of what makes it so great.
"I think I was ready to play pro ball, but it came down to whether I wanted to or not. I've never been to Omaha [for the College World Series] and I hear what a great experience that is. I haven't graduated yet, and I'll be able to do that the following quarter. I'll be able to play most of the spring without taking classes."
And he will be playing for another talent-laden Stanford team, joined by fellow Top 50 prospects Austin Wilson (No. 9), A.J. Vanegas (No. 23) and Brian Ragira (No. 45). Appel is very much the pitcher who has taken the ball every Friday for the past two years. There's a reason why scouts consider him the top prospect yet again. He has the stuff and presence to pitch at or near the top of a rotation in the future.
"He's the same guy he was at the end of last season," one scout said. "He has three power pitches and is a top-three-pick talent."
Draft status is clearly the last thing on Appel's mind, but he is quick to point out that he's working on getting better this fall. One knock against him last year was that he wasn't as consistently dominant as someone with his pure stuff should have been. He's been focused on improving his command down in the zone, pounding the inside part of the strike zone, maybe even adding a pitch to his repertoire. The Appel who comes out in the 2013 Draft might be better than the one from last June.
"A lot of people think, 'If he goes back, he's losing a year in pro ball. It's a terrible decision,'" Appel said. "It's not like I'm doing nothing, just trying to survive. I'm hungry, I want to get better."
If he does that, then Appel can potentially have his cake and eat it too, with the kind of trifecta few can even dream of.
"Knowing I'm walking out of here with a Stanford degree and hopefully a trip to Omaha, I don't think anyone can put a price tag on that," Appel said. "I'm not thinking about the Draft at all. I don't think I really thought about it last year. It was there. The day before the Draft, I looked at myself in the mirror [and said], 'I did everything I can. I focused on the process; the results are out of your hands.'
"I haven't had a single regret since the signing deadline. I think if I dwelled on it too much that I could be doing different things this fall. I think if I thought about that, it would upset me. Not because I want to do those things, just because I'd be doubting myself. I think we're going to have a really talented team this year."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.