Saturday, December 12, 2015

Appel becomes a Phillie as Ken Giles trade becomes official... (updated)

A bit of a shock today as the Ken Giles trades becomes official.  What the Phillies have announced is the following players are shifting organisations:

Ken Giles and Jonathan Arauz to Houston

Vince Velasquez, Brett Oberholtzer, Thomas Eshelman, Mark Appel and Harold Arauz to Philadelphia.

Astros County has already published a couple of post-trade articles on this particular topic, so I urge the interested (and undoubtedly handsome) reader to refer back to those articles.  In this one, I posted immediate news of the trade, and the Constable chimed in with his analysis of Ken Giles, and in this one, I have a quick look at the outgoing prospects, and talked a little about how I saw bullpens having evolved over the last 15-or-so years.

I must say that I was confused when news broke of the change to the trade.  Firstly, I wondered whether Appel and Fisher were included in the trade, because the MLB Trade Rumors article essentially listed a whole bunch of names at initial glance.  If you look, it seems like the trade could have been for Velasquez, Oberholtzer, Eshelman, Appel, Arauz and Fisher, but after a second-or-two of shock, I realised that Fisher's name was part of the next sentence.  So Fisher remains an Astro, which undoubtedly would please some, but in his place, Mark Appel and Harold Arauz depart.

Appel's departure - much like Fisher's reported departure - is probably going to result in divided opinions amongst Astros fans.  Appel, famously, was a candidate to go first in the 2012 draft, but the Astros passed him over for Carlos Correa, later drafting Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz.  The latter two became affordable because the below-slot deal that Correa agreed two meant the Astros could afford to go over-slot with their later picks, and McCullers and Ruiz were the beneficiaries of that.  Appel dropped to the eighth overall pick, where he was selected by the Pirates.  After he turned down their bonus offer, he re-entered the 2013 draft, and was taken first by the Astros.

I pulled up a Wikipedia list of the 2013 draftees - and please support the current Wikipedia appeal if you are able to - expecting to be able to list a bunch of players who I would have preferred the Astros to have taken instead of Mark Appel.  Well, there aren't that many, but the one player the Astros missed taking is a biggie.  Kris Bryant will be forever burnt into the memories of Astros fans as the One Who Got Away.  2013 wasn't that long ago, and there is a lot of water still to go under the bridge in terms of that draft, but Bryant is the guy who has made the biggest impact on baseball to this point.

Like the 2013 first round, the Astros' 2013 draft seems similarly underwhelming too.  Appel has been a disappointment, as was Andrew Thurman, who is now a Brave.  Also traded away from the Astros is Jacob Nottingham, who when to Oakland as part of the exchange for Scott Kazmir.  Tony Kemp seems to have a thing going, but he is blocked in his most natural position.  No one else really sticks out, except for perhaps Kyle Westwood and/or Tyler Brunnemann, who seem to have had a few solid seasons in the mid-minors each.  The irony is that the biggest contributor from the 2013 draft for the Astros looks set to be Colin Moran, who the Astros considered (and passed on) for the first pick, but later acquired from Miami in the Cosart trade.

Mark Appel has a long history with Astros County.  For a start, the Constable interviewed him pre-draft in 2012.  Then we watched as he was drafted 1-1 in 2013, later celebrating his professional debut.  Then 2014 happened, and Appel's results were lacklustre despite positive scouting comments, leading to an infamous bullpen session at MMP that got everyone excited for no reason.  The bullpen session occurred en route to Corpus, after Appel was promoted from Lancaster, immediately after a solid start in Stockton.  2014 was the kind of year for Appel where the two earned runs in six frames against Stockton was considered a success, but he had been the victim of appendicitis, so perhaps lingering core muscle problems were to blame.

Appel finished 2014 at Corpus, then he progressed to the Arizona Fall League, where he showed some more prospect potential.  When the AFL season concluded, I had a quick look at Appel's game logs, noting that he was sometimes solid, and sometimes totally dominant.  Hopes for further progression were high entering 2015, which Appel started by returning to the Hooks.

However, 2015 was another unimpressive year for Appel.  He split the year evenly between Corpus and Fresno, posting near-identical stats in each.  His overall year involved 131-and-two-thirds innings pitched, for a combined 4.37 ERA.  His WHIP was a middling 1.413, and he struck out 7.5 per nine innings, against a rate of 3.5 walks per nine.  Appel allowed roughly a home run per nine innings over both levels.  Perhaps significantly, nine unearned runs did not contribute to his 4.37 ERA - ncluding them increases his runs-against-per-nine average to 4.99.

To me, and given that Appel will play 2016 as his age-24 season, those aren't the numbers normally associated with a top prospect.  The one caveat that I would mention is that sometimes minor-league pitchers are working on something at AA and AAA - perhaps a breaking pitch or something - and that makes them predictable to opposing hitters and their performance prone to fluctuation.  But it has always seemed that Appel has only really been working on being effective in the minor-leagues, and combined with concerns about his stuff dating back pre-draft, along with his rough start as a pro, it is possible that the Astros see him as simply not making enough progress to justify his place in the organisation.

Appel continues to get some prospect-love, however.  He was rated number 2 of the Astros' prospect list prior to the trade, and the same organisation ranks Appel number 43 in the most recent top-100 prospect rankings.  However, top draftees are often the beneficiaries of some positive propaganda in various media organisations associated with major-league clubs, and it is possible that Appel's place in those rankings remain inflated by virtue of his drafting position at 1-1, back in 2013.

So 2016 was poised to be a big year for Mark Appel, and he won't see it out in the Astros organisation.  Here ends an interesting relationship between Appel and the Astros, who always seemed every supportive of their asset, despite middling overall results.

Appel's inclusion does change the trade analysis somewhat.  My quick take is that this is an exchange of high-risk high-ceiling prospects - Appel has some risk involved, but so too does Fisher.  However, Appel's floor is likely to be higher than Fisher's, and Appel always has the significant advantage of trialling himself as a reliever if he flames out as a starter.  Fisher potentially has a role as a bench-bat, but relievers are more valuable than pinch hitters, which is why the Astros are making this trade in the first place.

The change in personnel associated with this trade also raises some questions that call into question Fisher's overall value.  Jonathan Arauz (included in the trade to the Astros) isn't a nothing, as a 17-year-old toolsey middle infielder, but it is a long way from knowing exactly what he happens to be.  The question as to why the trade pieces were changed also arises - was Fisher excluded because of a medical reason, or was the trade mis-reported from the beginning??  I would think it likely that there is something in Fisher's medical records that the Phillies didn't like, both teams settled on Appel instead, and the including of one Arauz minor-leaguer going each way balanced out the difference in value between Appel and Fisher.

I like this trade more for the Phillies now.  They get another high-risk pitching prospect instead of a high-risk outfielder.  Risk should matter less to the Phillies in four-for-one or five-for-two exchanges.  The risk is partly mitigated by the sheer number of players headed in the Phillies' direction.  If one of them hits, then the trade has been worthwhile, and because they aren't expected to contend any time soon, they can take their sweet time finding out what Velasquez, Oberholtzer and Appel are capable of.  For the Astros, the fact they have two guys coming their way spreads their risk a little, but it is is easy to imagine this trade being viewed as a bust for the Astros in a few years time, because the value for the Astros is - at this point in time - nearly entirely dependant on Giles' performance and health.

The inclusion of another starting pitcher also means that the Astros (i) are more likely to sign a free-agent starter and (ii) again double-down on their top prospects, which for now consist of Michael Feliz, Francis Martes and Joe Musgrove.  Earlier in the offseason, many Astros fans were wondering how they were going to deal with their prospect depth in the starting pitching ranks, and I guess now we are finding out.

Thanks for reading, and please add to the comments below.