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July 16, 2012

Future Shock

The Nats Are Geniuses! Appel Is Stupid! Not So Fast

by Kevin Goldstein

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Even with the new signing system, this year's draft deadline had far less drama than previous years did. Nonetheless, the two biggest stories in the first round did end up lasting until that Friday, 5 p.m. Eastern deadline. Mark Appel, the eighth overall pick by the Pirates, did not sign. Lucas Giolito, the 16th overall pick by the Nationals, did. The general reaction seemed to come pretty quickly: the Nationals are geniuses and Appel is dumb. It's an easy narrative, but worth pointing out that in these scenarios the players are never called brilliant. Only teams are brilliant, and only players are dumb. But I digress. The point is that the Nationals might be geniuses, and Appel might have made a foolish decision, but you can't judge yet. Nobody can. So you shouldn't.

Make no mistake, the Giolito signing is potentially a steal, but that's the key word: potentially. In March, before he suffered what turned out to be a season-ending elbow injury, Giolito was the top talent in the draft. He was touching triple-digits with his fastball and throwing quality secondary pitches. He was in many ways like Dylan Bundy, only with a much more traditional power pitcher's frame. He could have been the first high school right-hander to ever go No. 1 overall, so if he gets back to that status as a player, it's highway robbery.

The assumption that he's just going to automatically make it all the way back there is where the mistake lies, though. He might, but it's not a sure thing. Because how quickly we've forgotten about Matt Purke. Just a little more than a year ago, Purke was the guy people thought could be the No. 1 pick in the draft. Then—as with Giolito—injury struck. In Purke's case it was a shoulder and not an elbow, and he rested and then tried to pitch through it, but his stuff was well below what was seen during his incredible 2010 campaign, when he went 17-0 as a freshman at TCU.

Purke's bonus demands remained high, dropping him to the third round, where the Nationals took him and signed him to a deal at the deadline with a total package worth more than $4 million. The reaction at the time was similar to the general consensus on Giolito: Mike Rizzo got his man. The Nationals just turned a third-round pick into a top-ten talent, and they're brilliant. So much of that is true. It was a good pick, and it was a good risk. It's the pretending that there's no risk, that Purke will just automatically return to form, where mistakes are made. Cut to the present and Purke is still dealing with arm problems, still showing sub-par (for him, certainly) stuff during the rare times he takes the mound, and he has a career that consists of just 15.1 innings nearly a year into his professional life. Still a genius move by the Nationals? Debatable.

And this isn't the first time. The year before Purke, we had Anthony Ranaudo. A potential No. 1 pick, an elbow injury, a drop to the supplemental first round, a $2.55 million bonus, and praises all over for finding such a great talent so low. Two years later, and he's thrown just 37.2 innings this year because of a groin injury and has a 6.69 ERA in nine starts at Double-A Portland. You see a pattern here?

That's not to say Giolito is doomed. One of the first gambits of this kind was a rousing success. Eight years ago, Maryland high school righty Nick Adenhart was the top high school player in his class before snapping his elbow ligament in a May start, requiring Tommy John surgery. The entire industry assumed he would attend North Carolina and work his way back to a team after three years, but the Angels took a flyer on him in the 14th round, and ultimately signed him to a bonus just north of $700,000. The ironic thing was that at the time, there was a lot of criticism of the selection, but he made a full recovery and turned into a bright young starting pitching prospect before being killed in a tragic auto accident at the age of 22.

Giolito could be the next Purke or Ranaudo, or he could turn into a Cy Young candidate. All possibilities are in play, which is why we can't judge the pick yet. Nobody can.

The same goes for Appel. The easy narrative is that he's a jerk and the Pirates offered him a ton of money and, by turning it down, he made a huge mistake and is a selfish, spoiled brat. Oh yeah, that Boras guy is a jerk too. Yet, none of those is true. This is like a no fault divorce, if anything.

The Pirates certainly did nothing wrong. They went into the draft with no idea that Appel would fall to them, and he was clearly the top talent when their pick became available. They offered every cent they could, around $3.8 million dollars, without sacrificing a pick, which was certainly a reasonable decision.

And while he's taking a lot of heat, Appel had every right to say no, as well as a legitimate reason to. He went into draft day expecting to be the top pick, or at least one of the top three, but instead, he landed with a team that had an assigned bonus pool with the pick that was more than 60% less than Houston's pool at No. 1. Based solely on slot assignments, he thought he was in line for somewhere between $6-$7 million, and the Pirates just couldn't meet the price.

Now he enters next year's draft as, once again, the top pitcher in the draft. If he gets drafted high, and gets that $6 million or more, is he still stupid? Is he still selfish? Yes, he delayed his professional career by a year, and yes there is some chance that delays his free agency down the road by a year, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. For the overwhelming majority of players drafted, their bonus check will be the largest pay day of their baseball careers, and Mark Appel has every right to try to maximize that value. It's a risk, as he could get hurt and/or not pitch well next year, but he's not stupid, and he's not selfish. If anything, he's the first player to pay the harshest price of a new draft system that doesn't allow every team to pay players what they are worth. You want to blame someone? It's not Appel, it's not the Pirates, and it's not Boras. It's the owners whose strange obsession with the draft has created a system that punishes players by protecting teams from themselves.

Appel might have made a mistake, and he might have done the right thing. And the same goes for the Nationals in terms of signing Giolito. You can't judge a draft after three years, and you certainly shouldn't do it three minutes after the signing deadline.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

Related Content:  Prospects,  2012 Draft

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