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May 4—For a time Mark Appel was the most coveted amateur pitcher in the nation.
The tall right-hander set strikeout records at Stanford and was twice drafted in the first round of the Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft.
He earned a $6 million signing bonus from the Houston Astros after being drafted first overall in 2013.
Some eight years later, he begins his baseball season in Double-A Reading. He's 29 years old and hasn't thrown a baseball in a game that counts in almost four years, since being shut down with shoulder pain in 2017 while pitching for Triple-A Lehigh Valley.
And he couldn't be more thrilled.
"I'm really excited," he said Monday after being introduced during the Fightin Phils' Media Day. "It's been a long time since I've played."
Appel's path to the big leagues was derailed by injuries, the most severe to his right elbow midway through the 2016 season after a promising start with Lehigh Valley.
He was never the same pitcher after that and finally, a few months after the 2017 season ended, he walked away from the game.
"I was at a tough place physically," he said. "I was hurt. I didn't really have any light at the end of the tunnel. Mentally, emotionally, I was just worn out."
Appel figured his baseball career was over. He stayed close to the game because of the relationships he had made in college and in pro ball in the Astros and Phillies organizations. He gradually began to see some light at the end of that tunnel.
"I realized I don't hate the game," he said. "I'm not bitter. I don't have any resentment. I just wasn't healthy. By the end of 2018, I realized I still had the desire to play again, but I needed to figure out how to get healthy."
He did that and was ready to make a comeback last spring; like so many other things, that plan got derailed by the coronavirus outbreak.
"I wanted to give it another shot, but I didn't know the full length of time or the steps that it would take to get back here, where I'm on a team ready to play," Appel said. "The first step was surgery. Through that rehab process, taking it one step at a time, eventually you take enough steps and you're ready to go."
Late last year, he contacted the Phillies, the last team he had played for, and got a welcome response. He was invited to spring training and showed the Phillies enough to make a team.
"The fastball is there," Phillies farm director Josh Bonifay told Matt Gelb of The Athletic. "His ability to pitch is there. We're just excited to get him going."
He'll make his Reading debut Saturday, starting against Erie. The Phillies will take it slow with him, of course, as they're doing with all their pitchers. After a missed season, arm strength needs to be built back up gradually.
Appel likely will be watched closer than most. First, there's the fact that he hasn't pitched competitively in more than three seasons. Then there's his injury history. And, of course, there's his vast upside: If things go well, the Phillies could have a real find on their hands.
They obviously liked him enough back in 2015 to trade away rising young closer Ken Giles for him in an eight-player deal.
"Because of him being off so long, it's of the utmost importance for him to get his feet under him and get the reps," said Reading pitching coach Brad Bergesen. "The more reps he gets, the better he will continue to get. We know what his history is; we know what the talent level. I'm excited to see him get innings under his belt."
There may be question marks about his arm and durability but it's clear Appel no longer carries the weight of being such a visible prospect (and one of just three No. 1 overall picks not to make the big leagues).
"Being able to take a step away was great for me because it gave me perspective," he said. "It allowed me to figure out whether I wanted to play again. And if I did, it was playing because I love it and not because of any expectations or pressure that people placed on me.
"I'm really happy with where I'm at and to get to have a second chance."