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."

Tonight's lineup: Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in after day off

Tonight's lineup: Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, Cameron Rupp back in after day off

The Phillies, winners of six straight, are using a more traditional lineup for tonight's series open in Los Angeles against the Dodgers.

Cesar Hernandez, Tommy Joseph, and Cameron Rupp are all back in the lineup after getting Thursday afternoon off against the Marlins. Hernandez is back in his usual leadoff spot, while Joseph is hitting seventh and Rupp eighth. Freddy Galvis is back in the two-hole.

Maikel Franco will look to continue his hot streak tonight against Dodgers starter Kenta Maeda. Franco is 9 for 23 with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout during the Phillies' current winning streak.

Franco is 2 for 5 with a strikeout and two singles in his career against Maeda.

Here is the Phillies' full lineup.

1. Cesar Hernandez, 2B
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Odubel Herrera, CF
4. Maikel Franco, 3B
5. Michael Saunders, RF
6. Aaron Altherr, LF
7. Tommy Joseph, 1B
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Jerad Eickhoff, P

And the Dodgers' lineup:

1. Andrew Toles, CF
2. Corey Seager, SS
3. Justin Turner, 3B
4. Adrian Gonzalez, 1B
5. Yasmani Grandal, C
6. Chase Utley, 2B
7. Cody Bellinger, LF
8. Enrique Hernandez, RF
9. Kenta Maeda, P

For more on tonight's game, check out Corey Seidman's game notes.

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Next 15 games will show us who the Phils are

Phillies-Dodgers 5 things: Next 15 games will show us who the Phils are

Phillies (11-9) at Dodgers (11-12)
10:10 p.m. on The Comcast Network; streaming live on CSNPhilly.com and the NBC Sports App

Draft, schmaft. The streaking Phillies are the best story in town.

OK, maybe not until Monday. But there's a buzz around this Phillies team, which has won six games in a row but begins a tough road trip Friday night in L.A.

Let's take a look:

1. Daunting stretch commences
The Phillies played well for the first seven weeks last season and carried a 25-19 record into a difficult road trip through Detroit and Chicago.

They won one game on that trip, beginning a stretch of 19 losses in 24 games. With that, their season was effectively over.

"We've just got to continue that for a little bit longer than we did last year," Pete Mackanin said after Thursday's win.

It won't be easy. The Phillies have three at Dodger Stadium, then four at Wrigley Field against the defending champion-Cubs, then they play six of their next eight against the Nationals, who've been the best team in baseball this month. (They also have a two-game series with the Mariners in there.)

Even if the Phils go something like 6-9 during this upcoming stretch, they'd emerge out of it 17-18, which would be a more-than-respectable start given the difficulty of their early-season schedule.

The good news is that after facing the Nationals six more times the next two weeks, the Phillies don't play them again until September.

2. Be like Maik
Maikel Franco's hot bat has carried the Phillies over the last week. 

During the six-game winning streak, he's gone 9 for 23 (.391) with a double, two homers, 10 RBIs, three walks and just one strikeout. The grand slam was great but the best sign has been the way he's used the whole field and not gotten himself out.

Franco is hitting mistake-pitches right now. It's something we haven't seen him do consistently the last two seasons because of his over-aggressiveness.

This hot streak won't last forever — in fact, it might not even make the trip out West. But Franco has indeed shown that when he's seeing the ball well, he can carry an offense. We used to say that often about the Phillies' previous cleanup hitter, didn't we?

3. Also, be like Eick
The Phillies have played so well the last week that even the national folks at MLB Network took notice Thursday night.

Greg Amsinger, Dan Plesac and Eric Byrnes did two whole segments on the Phillies, and at the end of one of them Plesac said that, "When this team is ready to contend again, Jerad Eickhoff will be front and center."

Eickhoff is finally getting some recognition.

Every athlete in every sport will tell you consistency is what they seek the most. It's as cliche as it gets, and it's usually meaningless because nothing in sports is totally consistent. You're hot for a few weeks, teams adjust, a cold spell begins, etc.

Well, Eickhoff is totally consistent. He's pitched six or more innings in 26 of 37 starts the last two seasons and he's allowed three earned runs or less in 31 of them.

Every fifth day, the Phillies know what they're going to get: at least six quality innings that keep them in the game and provide them a chance for a late win.

The Phils never seem to hit for Eickhoff, who is 0-1 this season despite stellar numbers: a 2.55 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, more than a strikeout per inning and a .200 opponents' batting average.

Eickhoff has been considerably better at home than on the road during his brief career, posting a 2.95 ERA at Citizens Bank Park and a 3.80 ERA everywhere else.

He's never pitched at Dodger Stadium, a ballpark that definitely favors pitchers.

Eickhoff's lone meeting with the Dodgers came last August. It was one of the few games he allowed more than four runs, but the Phillies actually provided some offense to get him off the hook. He struck out eight but was taken deep by Justin Turner and Yasmani Grandal.

4. A look at the Dodgers
Over are the days when the Dodgers had too many productive outfielders to play at one time. Matt Kemp has been traded twice, Andre Ethier can't get on the field, Joc Pederson is on the DL and Yasiel Puig has become a mediocre player.

The Dodgers' lineup looks a lot different these days, especially with first baseman Adrian Gonzalez shelved temporarily with a forearm injury that's bothered him for months.

Turner and Corey Seager are the two standouts in L.A.'s lineup. 

It's often mentioned that the Mets shouldn't have let Daniel Murphy walk, but losing Turner hurt nearly as much. Since signing with the Dodgers in 2014, Turner has hit .300/.368/.491 with 90 doubles, 50 home runs and 201 RBIs in 407 games. He's coming off an insane second half last season and leads the NL with nine doubles.

Seager has so far lived up to every bit of hype. In 898 plate appearances, he's hit .312 with a .900 OPS. He walks, he has massive power, he hits doubles (40 last season) and plays really good defense.

The key to holding the Dodgers in check is getting past that 2-3 of Seager and Turner. The rest of the lineup is lacking right now with Gonzalez, Pederson and Logan Forsythe banged up.

The Dodgers earlier this week called up one of their top prospects in first baseman Cody Bellinger. He's 1 for 10 with five strikeouts through three games. He entered the season as Baseball America's No. 7 prospect in the majors. The guy has hit bombs at every minor-league level.

5. Phils face Maeda
• The Phillies will face second-year Japanese right-hander Kenta Maeda, who went 16-11 with a 3.48 ERA last season but hasn't pitched well yet in 2017. In four starts, he's 1-2 with a 8.05 ERA and has allowed seven home runs in 19 innings.

Maeda doesn't go too deep into games. He's lasted less than six innings in 21 of his 36 starts with the Dodgers.

Maeda got the win both times he faced the Phillies last season but didn't pitch particularly well either time. He gave up five runs in 11 innings on four homers. The home runs were hit by Aaron Altherr, Freddy Galvis, Cesar Hernandez and Cameron Rupp.

Galvis and Hernandez each reached base against him three times.

Maeda has five pitches: a four-seam fastball, slider, changeup, sinker and curveball. He primarily uses the fastball and slider against righties but will throw any of those pitches to a lefty. The changeup has been by far his best pitch in the majors (.204 opponents' batting average, no home runs allowed) and the curveball has been by far his worst (.383).