As his new teammates warmed up on the field, Mark Appel looked through the window of one of the Tri-City ValleyCats suites above the lush grass of Joseph L. Bruno Stadium and marveled at the sight.
“I’ve heard stories about minor league ballparks, and, man, this beats all of them.” he said. “This looks amazing. It’s a beautiful ballpark.”
He’ll enjoy the view while he can, and the ValleyCats fans will reciprocate for a few innings tonight when the overall No. 1 pick in the Major League Baseball draft makes his pro debut as the starting pitcher against the Lowell Spinners at 7:05.
Then, Appel will go somewhere else and keep moving upward, perhaps all the way to the Houston Astros before the end of the season. For now, the Stanford University graduate will embark on his pro career in the short-season, single-A New York-Penn League before what will be a packed house.
“Man, it’s exciting to be here. It’s weird doing these press conferences, because I see myself as just another baseball player,” Appel said. “I’m just like all the other guys, so it’s a real honor to be here.”
Appel, 6-foot-5, 215 pounds, is not just another baseball player, at least not to the Astros.
He’s a righty who is expected to help turn around a team that has lost at least 100 games the last two seasons and is on course to do it again this year.
ValleyCats manager Ed Romero said Appel will be limited to about 30 pitches against Lowell, then is expected to move on to Quad Cities after another start in five days for Tri-City, which would be at Mahoning Valley next Wednesday night.
Appel, who was 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA for the Cardinal this season, has been working out at the Astros’ spring training facility in Florida.
This will be his first live game action in a month.
Anticipation will be high among the organization and fans, and Appel said he’s OK with that.
“I don’t try to set my expectations too high, and that’s not a lack of confidence at all,” he said. “When you get down to it, baseball is still a game. Yes, it’s a job for me and I’m getting paid to play, but I still love it. I love getting to go in the lockerroom and seeing my name on a locker. The little things like that are the blessings about being able toplay baseball.
“So I don’t really have high expectations, I have high hopes and high dreams. I set my goals high, but when I go out, my expectation is to compete every pitch. If I do that and we lose, at least I know I gave it my all.”
Appel, who is represented by agent Scott Boras, was drafted No. 8 overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates last year.
The Pirates reportedly offered him a $3.8 million signing bonus, but he chose to go back to Stanford for his senior season. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management science and engineering.
“Given the landscape of the draft, once you’re drafted, you don’t
really have much negotiation power,” he said. “My big negotiating chip was being able to go back to school. And since it was Stanford, that’s a legitimate chip. and something I had no problem doing.”
Appel throws a fastball in the 93-97 mph range, has a slider in his repertoire and improved his changeup this season.
He was named to multiple All-America teams after breaking the school record for strikeouts in a season (103 in 1061⁄3 innings) and career (372).
Appel also was named the Pac-12 baseball scholar-athlete of the year.
He and his family lived in Houston until he was 12 before moving to California.
“Houston was where I grew up and was my childhood team, so that’s obviously a huge blessing, but I don’t really know what a first overall pick is supposed to feel like,” he said.
“[But] if I start thinking about being in Houston in September, I still have to go out and pitch two innings and do my best [today]. And then the next outing, and the next outing.”
Under MLB’s new collective bargaining agreement, the deadline for signing draftees was pushed back a month earlier, meaning players like Appel will be in a position to move up the ladder sooner, instead of waiting for the following season’s spring training.
Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow told The Associated Press that he expects Appel to reach at least AA Corpus Christi before the end of the season, but beyond that, “It’s too early to speculate on timelines. We need to get him out there, and get him pitching.”
He’ll do that tonight in front of a sold-out crowd at Bruno Stadium. Appel wore jersey No. 26 in college, but will wear No. 28 for the ValleyCats. since outfielder James Ramsey has 26.
As of Thursday evening, about 1,000 general admission tickets, the only ones still available, had been sold.
“I’ve heard Tri-City has great fans, and it’s pretty awesome that my first game is the Fourth of July [weekend],” Appele said. “That’s always the biggest game at ballparks across the country.
“I think Tri-City is going to be a very memorable time for me because it is my first start as a professional athlete. There will always be a special place in my heart for the fans here and the city of Troy.”