Rounding Third: Astros finally get their man

It was a pick two years in the making, but the Houston Astros finally brought right-hander Mark Appel home.

The Stanford standout became the fourth first overall selection of the Houston Astros on Thursday in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft.

Appel was believed to be at the top of the Astros' draft board last year, but the team apparently had signability concerns and chose Puerto Rico Baseball Academy shortstop Carlos Correia.

Houston's concerns proved to be valid when Appel declared shortly after being taken by the Pittsburgh Pirates at No. 8 that he intended to return to the Cardinal for his senior season, and that turned out to be the case after he failed to come to terms with the Bucs.

So what changed in a year? Appel is still represented by Scott Boras, who last time I checked still bleeds every last dollar he can out of a team. By the way, that is his job and he is very good at it. You may not like his tactics, but more often than not, his clients get paid.

"Mr. Boras is my agent and he will handle negotiations," Appel said. "Obviously, I will be very involved. But ... I trust him, and he's done a great job so far."

Well, Appel certainly did nothing to change anyone's opinion that he was still the best pitcher available. As the Friday starter for Stanford, Appel went 10-4 in 14 starts and tossed four complete games. He issued just 23 walks and allowed 17 extra-base hits in 106 1/3 innings while being named as a finalist for almost every major college award.

Stanford's all-time strikeout leader (372), Appel ranked third in the Pac-12 with a 2.12 ERA and boasted a .203 opposing batting average. He also led the conference and ranked fourth in the nation with 130 punchouts.

If you are going to be playing poker with the Astros, be prepared to lose. In the months and weeks leading up the draft, all we heard was that the team liked Appel but were leaning heavily toward Oklahoma righty Jonathan Gray.

In fact, 75 percent of all mock drafts had the Astros going with Gray, even after he tested positive for the Adderall during baseball's pre-draft drug testing program.

Perhaps we shouldn't have been that surprised Appel was their guy all along. Remember nobody in the world thought the Astros would take Correia No. 1 last year.

But, as we said, now comes the hard part for the Astros.

As part of baseball's new collective bargaining agreement, the Astros have a total $11.69 million to spend on this year's draft with the No. 1 overall pick holding a maximum $7.79 million bonus-pool slot value.

The biggest reason why they opted for Correia rather than Appel last year was the nearly $4.5 million in savings the team used to spend later in the draft.

This time, though, they couldn't let that be an issue with Appel staring them straight in the face for a second straight year. That same type of cost- conscious thinking is exactly why they are picking first overall for a second straight year and maybe in position to do it an unprecedented third consecutive time next year.

"We're absolutely thrilled that this came to a conclusion today and that we selected Mark Appel with the first selection in the draft," Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow said. "We believe he is a premium talent and we see him as a future potential ace. He's exactly the type of player that we need to be adding to the organization. He makes us significantly better and we believe this is a special player that is going to be a part of our championship team someday."

There's a few reasons why getting Appel to put his name on the dotted line may not be that big of a deal, though.

For one, I'm pretty sure the Astros did their due diligence. They weren't going to pick Appel if there was even the slightest hint that Boras was going to hold up the proceedings.

Two, Appel is a hometown boy. He spent 12 years in Houston before moving to California. He attended Astros games at the Astrodome as a kid. He sounds as if he wants to be an Astro. How many people can say that these days?

"It's incredibly special," Appel said. "Both my parents were born (in Houston) and raised there, and I lived there for 12 years before moving to California. All my family lives (in Houston). It's very exciting,"

And three, well, the team will have a little extra time to negotiate. The deadline for teams to sign draft picks this year is July 12, but that won't apply to Appel because he is a college senior.

However, if Team Appel decides to play hardball, that could really hurt Houston's entire draft.

I expect the Astros to get something done with Appel relatively quick. Of all the pitchers in this year's draft class, he's probably the most major league- ready.

We've already seen a few pitchers drafted last year make their big league debuts this season. It won't surprise anyone if he's pitching for a spot in Houston's rotation as early as next spring.

"This is not a player we're going to rush to the big leagues. This is a player who's going to be here for a while," Luhnow said. "As good as Pac-12 baseball is, professional baseball is harder, and the major leagues is a lot harder. He certainly is a guy who's capable of moving quickly, based on his experience. But we're not going to put any timeframe on it."

Why wouldn't you want him at Minute Maid as soon as possible? He's had an extra year in college. He's ready.

Or maybe they're happy with the likes of Dallas Keuchel, Erik Bedard, Lucas Harrell and whatever other slop they run out their every fifth day.

And for everyone else, if the team you root for didn't fill a need on Thursday, don't worry, there's still 38 more rounds to go.