Crucial season awaits pitching prospect Mark Appel, the Phillies' tantalizing curiosity

Crucial season awaits pitching prospect Mark Appel, the Phillies' tantalizing curiosity

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Almost four years after he was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft and 15 months after the Phillies took a shot on him in a trade with the Houston Astros, Mark Appel remains a tantalizing curiosity.

The right-hander's professional career has been defined by unfulfilled potential, but that strong-bodied, 6-foot-5, perfect pitcher's frame and power arm are just too mesmerizing to give up on.

This is a big season for Appel. He will turn 26 in July, and he's healthy after having surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow in June. With that, the Phillies sent him off to minor-league camp on Tuesday. In three weeks, he will embark on the season that he hopes will finally land him in the major leagues.

"Everybody kind of makes their own opportunity based on how they play," Appel said. "So, that's where my focus is. I know if I go out there and do the little things that I've been doing the last eight or nine months since surgery and keep this progression that I've been on, that I'll be there in no time.

"It's just a matter of being able to go out and prove that I'm healthy, prove that I can give the team five, six, seven innings, keep the team in the game. I think that's really where my head is at. It's just a matter of going down to minor-league camp and doing my thing."

It's not out of the question that Appel ends up in the bullpen some day. For now, the Phillies want him to continue to get starter's reps so he can work on his primary flaw -- control. He projects to open the season in the Triple A rotation. He opened there last season and went 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his first four starts. He followed that by going 0-3 with an 8.27 ERA in his next four starts before being shut down with the elbow problem. For the season, Appel worked 38 1/3 innings. He struck out 34 but walked 20.

Appel spent a month in big-league camp this spring and pitched in four Grapefruit League games. In nine innings, he gave up seven hits and five runs. He struck out 10 but walked four.

Phillies pitching coach Bob McClure is one of those folks who marvel at Appel's raw talent. He saw progress this spring.

"I'm seeing more quality in his pitches," McClure said. "For me, it looks like he's going forward and that's a big thing. He's not scattering balls all over. His misses are not as frequent and not as bad as they were. I'm very pleased where he's at and he should be too. He's made good progress coming off surgery."

McClure believes Appel will pitch in the big leagues someday. He said the pitcher's goal for 2017 should be to throw "the least amount of pitches per inning as he can."

In other words, fill the strike zone.

Appel knows he needs to improve on that.

"I think I've taken kind of big strides this spring," he said of his control.

He mentioned having some chats with Larry Andersen, who served as a guest pitching instructor early in camp. Andersen stressed the importance of an aggressive mindset and pitching with confidence, two qualities that Appel has not always shown.

"Larry and I had some conversations about the mentality of pitching and really just having confidence and not trying to throw a strike but knowing you're going to throw a strike," Appel said. "There's kind of a difference in knowing it in your head and kind of believing it in every fiber of your body. It makes a difference when you're on the mound."

On the Phillies' depth chart of upper-level pitching prospects, Appel ranks behind Zach Eflin and Jake Thompson, who both made it to the majors last season. He's probably also behind Ben Lively, Nick Pivetta and Ricardo Pinto. Drew Anderson is a pretty hot name, as well.

But Appel still has the physical tools that led the Astros to draft him No. 1 overall in 2013, the tools that continue to make him a tantalizing curiosity, a lottery ticket the Phillies hope to cash in on. It's just that it's getting to be time for him to start making his move.

"I think I've had times when I've been antsy, but there's a lot of patience with me," Appel said. "I think I've experienced a lot of things. I've experienced times of just pitching really poorly, my performance has lacked. I've had times when I've been injured and there have been setbacks -- last year was obviously a big one for me. I think in that sense there's always the hope, and the dream and the goal of getting to the big leagues, but you can't do it overnight. So I think it's just a matter of staying the course, staying the process."

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

Ruben Amaro Jr. keeps tabs on prospects from the pivotal Hamels trade from afar

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Even though he's been gone for 18 months and now wears a Boston Red Sox uniform, Ruben Amaro Jr. still has skin in the Phillies' rebuild.

Amaro was the Phillies' general manager in July 2015 when the team sent Cole Hamels and Jake Diekman to the Texas Rangers for a package that included five prospects, some who have already contributed in the major leagues and others that are knocking on the door.

And though his professional concern these days is coaching first base for Red Sox, Amaro still sneaks an occasional peek at how those prospects are progressing.

"Absolutely," he said before the Phillies and Red Sox played Saturday afternoon (see story). "It's human nature.

"It seems like they're doing OK. I think eventually they will all be contributors in the big leagues. If you get five of those guys to contribute in the big leagues, I think that's a pretty good trade."

The Phillies got three right-handed pitchers, Jerad Eickhoff, Alec Asher and Jake Thompson, in that deal, as well as catcher Jorge Alfaro and outfielder Nick Williams.

Thompson, Alfaro and Williams will be part of a prospect-studded Triple A Lehigh Valley team this season, and all three could be regulars in the majors in a year. Asher is still a candidate to make this year's big-league club in the bullpen.

Eickhoff, of course, is already a stalwart on the club. The 26-year-old right-hander led the starting staff in starts (33), innings (197 1/3) and ERA (3.65) last season. His mark of 1.92 walks per nine innings was fourth-best among National League starting pitchers last season.

Earlier this week, manager Pete Mackanin named Jeremy Hellickson his opening day starter. Hellickson called it "a great honor," then admitted that he thought Eickhoff deserved it more.

Eickhoff has been called a throw-in in the Hamels trade.

In fact, the pitcher himself used that phrase recently.

Amaro set the record straight.

"He wasn't a throw-in," the former GM said.

In terms of upside, Eickhoff might have ranked fourth in the deal behind Alfaro, Williams and Thompson, but he was a guy the Phillies invested many scouting hours in, a guy they wanted.

"He was an important part of it because he was one of the closest to getting to the big leagues as a starter and we needed guys from the upper levels because we didn't have a lot of them in starting pitching," Amaro said.

Amaro and Rangers GM Jon Daniels worked on the Hamels deal for months before pulling the trigger at July 2015 trade deadline.

Eickhoff had popped on the Phillies' radar when scout Charley Kerfeld watched him throw on a back field at the Rangers' minor-league complex. Scouts Dewey Colbert and Bart Braun also saw him.

"All of our guys saw him," Amaro said. "Charley saw him a lot. Dewey and Bart saw him. We had multiple looks on him and everybody else in that deal. We had quality recommendations.

"He wasn't one of (Texas') top 10 guys. But that's what good scouting is all about.

"After we made the trade, I talked to Jon Daniels about it and he said Eickhoff was the guy he was most pissed off about moving because he loved his character and the way he went about his business. He told me, 'I wish you would have substituted somebody else for Eickhoff.'"

Eickhoff actually came to the majors when Amaro was still the Phillies' GM. Amaro was let go between the time Eickhoff made his fourth and fifth starts.

Amaro peeked at the box scores after Eickhoff's starts last season.

Was he surprised by Eickhoff's performance?

"With the amount of innings he had, absolutely," he said. "But that's a great credit to him.

"Eickhoff has something that's different from other guys. He's got that thing that you need as a major league pitcher to be successful. He's got that internal drive and he's got (guts). That's big. You can't measure that with a protractor.

"Other things can be measured with a protractor. That one can't.

"From my brief time with him and from talking to other people, I know he wants to be good. You can tell he's got something in there."

With all of this going for him, why was Eickhoff rated fourth in the deal?

"Ceiling," Amaro said. "When you talk about ceiling, overall stuff, Thompson was one of those guys who had a higher ceiling. But ceilings, obviously, can change when a guy gets to the big leagues.

"We had a lot of internal debates about how guys lined up in this trade."

In the months leading up to the deal, the Phillies sought Alfaro and power-hitting outfielder Nomar Mazara, who hit 20 homers as a 21-year-old rookie for the Rangers last season.

"Mazara was about as untouchable as you can get," Amaro said. "Real high-ceiling guy who we liked the most probably along with Alfaro.

"We talked for a long time. It got to the point where we would not do the deal without Alfaro. We had to get 'a guy' and everyday catcher is such a crucial position. As far as the position guys, he was the most crucial."

The Phillies wanted an outfield bat in the deal, as well. With Mazara not in play, they focused on Williams and Lewis Brinson, a prospect who the Rangers sent to Milwaukee in last summer's deal for catcher Jonathan Lucroy.

"There was a lot of discussion about Williams and Brinson," Amaro said. "We liked them both. We thought that Williams was closer at the time and we really wanted guys that were close and we liked the way (Williams) swung the bat."

The final verdict on Amaro's watershed trade with the Rangers is still years away. Hamels has helped Texas get to the postseason the last two seasons and helps fuel that club's big dreams this season.

The Phillies' haul in the deal is still percolating and the team hopes it one day comes together as a fine brew.

And if it does, Ruben Amaro Jr. can feel some satisfaction. He's no longer a Phillie, but he has some skin in the team's rebuild.

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

Phillies 3, Red Sox 3: Bullpen auditions continue with personnel meeting looming

BOX SCORE

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Phillies officials have a big personnel powwow on Sunday and one of the matters that will be discussed is who gets the final two bullpen jobs.

With evaluation time dwindling, the Phils used Saturday's game against the Boston Red Sox as an opportunity to look at Alec Asher, Adam Morgan and Joely Rodriguez, all candidates to win a job in the bullpen.

"They all got a lot of work," manager Pete Mackanin said after the Phillies played to a 3-3 tie with the Red Sox.

The right-hander Asher worked three innings and gave up three hits and two runs.

The lefty Morgan worked three innings and allowed a solo homer.

The lefty Rodriguez worked two innings, gave up a hit and struck out three.

"To hold the Red Sox to three runs is pretty nice, especially in this ballpark," Mackanin said. "They had their guys in there and we held them down."

Morgan has allowed just one run over six innings his last two outings.

"He has changed speeds well last two times out," Mackanin said. "That's how he needs to pitch."

The Phillies have five spots set in their bullpen with Jeanmar Gomez, Hector Neris, Joaquin Benoit, Pat Neshek and Edubray Ramos. They are all right-handers. The final two spots will likely come down to Morgan, Asher, Rodriguez and Luis Garcia, who are all on the 40-man roster. That is an important consideration because the Phils would like to keep their 40-man roster subtractions to a minimum. There is an outside chance they could go with an eight-man bullpen, though that might be tough in the National League, where a full bench comes in handy. That will be discussed Sunday.

The makeup of the bench will also be discussed Sunday. Andrew Knapp's place on the 40-man roster will help his chance of being the backup catcher. Veteran catchers Ryan Hanigan and Bryan Holaday both can opt of their contracts in the next few days if they are not going to make the club. Utility man Chris Coghlan also has an opt-out coming. Daniel Nava and Brock Stassi are also candidates for what looks like two remaining spots on the bench. Nava does not have an opt-out until June. Stassi is under control and would have to accept an assignment to the minors if he does not make the club.

Infielder Jesmuel Valentin is also still in camp. He is on the 40-man roster. The question is whether the team wants to carry the 22-year-old as an extra man or get him regular reps at second base in Triple A. Valentin is 11 for 31 (.355) this spring. He hit his fifth double on Saturday.

"He swings the bat really well from the right side," Mackanin said. "He's got some work to do from the left side. He's got good actions and instincts. In a short period of time, he's made a good impression on me and I think he can be a major-league player."

The game
The Phillies had 12 hits but scored just three runs. They have scored just 10 runs over the last four games.

"We just can't accumulate a lot of runs," Mackanin said.

The Phils were last in the majors with 610 runs last season.

The Phillies tied the game in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Coghlan.

Mackanin tried to suicide-squeeze home the go-ahead run, but Roman Quinn popped up the bunt.

Colton Murray preserved the tie with a clean bottom of the ninth.

Former Phillie Kyle Kendrick pitched six innings of two-run ball for Boston. He walked none and struck out six. Kendrick projects to open the season at Triple A, but is No. 6 on the Red Sox's starting pitching depth chart and is likely to see big-league at some point this season.

Up next
The Phillies host the Pirates on Sunday. Clay Buchholz will make the start against right-hander Josh Lindblom, who spent time with the Phillies after coming over from the Dodgers in the Shane Victorino trade in 2012.