Oklahoma starting pitcher Jonathan Gray and Stanford’s Mark Appel are the consensus top two talents in the MLB draft starting Jun. 6, and each profiles as a potential ace for the team that drafts them. However, if I was the Houston Astros, owners of the top pick, I’d bank on Appel having the better career of the two.
The Astros are faced with a difficult dilemma; mock drafts have the club passing on the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Appel in favor of the 6-foot-4, 239-pound Gray based on signability issues surrounding Appel as Scott Boras is his agent.
Looking at the players purely from a talent standpoint, Gray offers the slightly better fastball of the two and can touch double digits. Appel doesn’t have the same velocity as Gray, but can also dial it up to 99 mph and sits in the 92-97 range.
Each boasts a terrific secondary pitch with both using a hard tilting slider to keep hitters off balance. Gray has what I would describe as a nasty slider with exceptional tilt that he throws at the back foot of lefty’s with ease. Appel features an 84-87 mph slider that dives away from right-handers, but is just a touch below Gray’s in terms of velocity.
The area that Appel separates himself form Gray is with his changeup, which can be as good or better than his slider on any given night, giving him two plus secondary pitches. The changeup for Gray is only average, but hasn’t had to work on it during his college career thanks to his fastball and devastating slider.
Appel is a much more refined pitcher and closer to a finished product. He could have been the top pick in the draft last year if not for the Astros taking a frugal approach. According to Dave Perkin of SI.com, “Appel profiles as a lynchpin because he has the mechanics and the delivery of a workhorse who can command pitches and maintain velocity.”
I think Gray could be a very good starter in the big, but I have reservations about if he can develop his changeup enough to keep hitters off-balance the third time through a lineup over the course of a 200-inning season.
For one inning, Gray could be similar to Aroldis Chapman and can dominate for 60 innings a year. As a starter he should be very good, but as a closer he could be legendary. Perkin echoed this thought in his mock draft, saying “he projects as a long-term staff ace but has a maximum effort delivery that could lend itself to a closer role.”
Appel is the classic prototype pitcher with a clean delivery, textbook mechanics and the stuff of an ace. The only downside to Appel is he has a difficult agent to work with, and that’s why he’ll fall to the Chicago Cubs at No. 2, who won’t hesitate to fork over what his agent wants.
Appel is the safest pick of the two and has a much lower floor than Gray, with a ceiling every bit as high. He will be a significant part of the Cubs’ rebuilding effort under Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer, and will prove to be the top pitcher in the draft in five years.