The First Choice: Who’s Your Pick?
There is still significant discussion over who is the preferred selection for the first overall pick in the upcoming draft by the Houston Astros. The Astros will be a wild card up until the last second, and will likely pick between Jonathan Gray, Mark Appel, Kris Bryant, Colin Moran, and Austin Meadows in the top slot. It is potentially a slot over talent selection, but in all honesty it is looking like a two horse race between Gray and Appel, though with a surprising closer down the stretch in Kris Bryant.
“With the first selection in the 2013 MLB Draft, the Houston Astros select Mark Appel, right hand pitcher, Stanford University.” This is what I expect to hear less than a month from now, and most things considered, that would be who I take at 1:1 come draft day. I got a live look at Gray when he pitched at UCLA, the game that pretty much vaulted his draft stock from first rounder to legit top five guy, and he really impressed. I saw Appel in person both last year and this year in L.A.; I liked him last year, and there was a noticeable step forward in his stuff that makes him my guy right now.
Jonathan Gray has improved his body each time I have seen him. While he’s not an underwear model type, he has trimmed up a bit better and is no longer as soft as he was in my views last season. I see plenty of people knock his athletic ability, but at his size and weight he gets around well. I think with PFP drilled into his head until the cows come home, he can be coached up to cover adequately enough. Young man has a lot of fight in him, he likes to attack. He is not afraid of contact. If he struggles through the first turn, he can adjust and adapt to how a team attacks him. I do think he needs a bit of ironing in the delivery, work out the big man issues and go downhill 100% of the time. As you’re around him, he looks more of a “bring your lunch pail to work” type guy.
Appel is no slouch, and is good kid and from a good family. There’s no reason to think that he has anything but a strong, positive character, which teams will like. He has been picked and prodded at for 24 months, and you always see him taking the high road whenever someone challenges him. His game on the field last year was a mixed bag: some things were great and a few were so-so. His slider was so-so my last view, so I hope that progressed this season. I have been told by a few people, including Steve, that his game has seen him attack and show more aggression, making the baby step improvements. This was his next step. He is a fastball/change up guy that can pitch forwards and backwards. He has the goods to sit atop a rotation, and you are pretty much sure that he can fill in any role on the pitching staff; a high floor is a key just as much as high a ceiling when spending millions in a signing bonus.
You are talking about two pitchers with a similar ceiling, and a similar skill set. Appel has the better floor with at worst middle to back end of the rotation. At 101 mph, Gray at worst should be a closer if the starter path stalls out.
One happens to be a pitcher with a better change up, the other with a better slider. Both work well off the fastball, and both show good pitchability, Appel more so on a consistent basis than Gray. Each guy is a human tree trunk and commands the fastball well at this stage. From a talent standpoint, it is splitting hairs. Appel has a better three pitch now mix and is likely to spend far less time in the minors. I think this question boils down to signability and makeup.
I agree that it will come down to signability and makeup, as well as other factors. If this is a debate about who we like at 1:1, another factor that we may have to look, because of the new CBA, is whether we like these two at $7 million-plus, or someone like Clint Frazier (or Meadows, or Bryant, or others) at $4 million as a first overall pick that will free up more money to be spread out on the draft, like the Astros did last year. I know there wasn’t a true 1:1 guy last year, that helped create the opportunity for the Astros to nab Carlos Correa and also pay over the allotted slot to sign other talent that had slipped down in the first round.
You mentioned how Appel has been “poked and prodded for 24 months”, and he was criticized for not signing last year as well, but all he did to respond to the criticisms he faces was to take a step forward. Last year he was arguably the top dog, in what is considered a better draft class than we have this year, and “he improved” on last year. The fastball that some described as flat and hittable is missing bats, the change has improved, and he flashes a slider that can miss bats as well. Some raved about the same slider that I saw at USC, though he seemed to lack a consistent release point on it, often missing out of the zone, but they were good misses generally, down and away.
I think this is a Three Thoroughbred race between Gray, Appel, and Bryant, three guys with high ceilings and floors. It is tough to go any further down the line as there is either a bit too much risk or the grade is not on par with those three, even with a brokered deal to save $2-3 million and spread out with the class. I have heard the rumored price tags, it leaves me not wanting to work with Boras and Appel at all, allow someone else to play “Cat and Mouse”. More I think, the more I want Gray.
Jonathan Gray is just starting to scratch the surface of what he can do. He is a tough grinder-type of player, and that should help him pushing forward in his career. I have seen him at his best and worst. Being at his worst forced his back against the wall. All he did when that happened was dig in his feet and push back. I love those types. Baseball is about failure and having to push through when you do not have “it” going for you. He’s shown me that he can grind it out with the best of them. I think he is a better athlete than people give him credit for; I really liken him to a young Brad Penny with a bit more velocity in the tank.
Now, I also have thought highly of Kris Bryant and this past spring he left the impression that there was nothing left to prove for him in the college game, he just needed to show that he can hit with wood. Do you know how difficult it is to hit in San Diego at night? The water vapor and cool air is a dense pocket that simply drags fly-balls into a long can of corn. Bryant has a clean 8 power ceiling, if he can maintain even average contact. That is rare for outfielders and I see enough agility to crack a poor mans 3B. His arm is a rocket, he has a shot to go 1:1 even without a side deal to get a lower signing bonus.
Houston makes it a crap shoot, but on talent and intangibles I take Gray. If I want a save a dollar or two without really sacrificing talent, I take Bryant.
I like seeing Bryant find his way into the discussion, it seems that nationally he is a clear cut third, but he needs to be in discussion for 1:1. I know someone that loves Bryant and has seen him nearly a dozen times; raves every time he sees him. To imagine him playing half his games in Houston surely would make any Houston fan smile. Crawford Boxes? They could be renamed Bryant Boxes if he ends up there.
As far as the arms go though, I don’t know if I could go Gray over Appel yet. I still like Appel’s longer track record, and the fact that his stuff has taken a step forward just from last year to this year leads me to believe he still has some room for improvement once he gets some pro instruction. Gray could make improvements too, and to imagine that is pretty freakin scary. I think the improvements you will see from Gray will be more of a consistency in the change up, and maybe improvements in command with refinement, more than an improvement in stuff like we saw with Appel.
I do not think you can go wrong with any of them at this stage. It is easy to look in hindsight five years from now and judge who should have been taken, but today it’s about what you want from each guy. Top shelf velocity, very good pitchability, or light tower power….and at what price. I think with the proper development all three can see very high above average regular with a skill set to push them into a lower tier team star. I think all three safely fit a role on the parent club with little to moderate risk.
I just see Gray scratching the surface of his skills and with that top shelf velocity, he could be special. I just like the fact that he has improved every time I see him, and that type of work ethic hits on me. He has that “it” to him in my book.
If Houston thinks Bryant can maintain a plus hit tool with top shelf power and play 3B, he is a lock at 1:1. I wonder if him potentially moving to RF keeps the pitcher in the discussion.
Steve’s pick: Mark Appel
Don’s pick: Jonathan Gray
Wildcard: Kris Bryant