Originally posted on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 6/4/12

The MLB Draft will commence on Monday evening at 7:00 p.m. eastern time with the Houston Astros kicking off the night with the number one selection.

Scouts and front offices have routinely been quoted as saying this year’s class lacks elite talent, especially within the college ranks. Chicago White Sox scouting director Doug Laumann stated over the weekend that “it’s probably as thin as I’ve seen in a decade.” Despite that, it appears the Houston Astros could dip into the pool of collegiate talent for the number one overall pick.

Jim Bowden of ESPN tweeted on Sunday afternoon that the Astros are expected to select collegiate right-hander Mark Appel out of Stanford University with the number one pick of the draft. He has long been projected to go number one — and very well could be drafted there — but Bowden’s report has since been disputed, as prep outfielder Byron Buxton and prep shortstop Carlos Correa remain in the mix, according to multiple sources.

Appel going number one would set a milestone for Stanford. Though they have had nine players drafted in the first round since the 2000 draft, the prestigious university has never had a player drafted number one overall. Two Stanford players, however, have gone at number two overall in the history of the draft; both were right-handed pitchers. Greg Reynolds went number two overall to the Rockies in 2006, and Steve Dunning was drafted second overall by the Cleveland Indians in 1970. Unfortunately, neither player lived up to their lofty expectations, as they never even accumulated +1.0 WAR in their big league careers, although Reynolds is still pitching professionally with the Texas Rangers’ Triple-A affiliate and currently owns a 4.19 ERA in 68.2 innings this year.

Back to Appel, though. The consensus seems to be that he would not be a candidate to go number one in most other years, but he certainly ranks amongst the upper echelon of talent in this year’s draft class. His fastball is what makes him special. In his most recent outing, he sat 96-97 MPH with the fastball and held his velocity late into the game. The offspeed offerings have room for improvement, as he generally finds success with his slurve and changeup due to the fact that hitters are amping up for his high-90s fastball, rather than being true plus pitches. Our own Eno Sarris saw him in his most recent outing and said, “Other than the fastball, he rarely wows you with the breaking stuff.”

With that said, opinions vary on Appel. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him as the sixth-best player available in his most recent draft prospect rankings and says he tends to be more hittable than his stuff would suggest. On the other hand, some scouts believe that he has a chance to be a legitimate number one starter down the road and is someone who has greatly improved this year.

If the Astros do indeed draft (and sign) Appel with the number one pick, they need him to be the legitimate number one starter that some scouts believe he can be. Houston reinvigorated their farm system last year with some midseason trades that netted the organization several reputable prospects — such as Jonathan Singleton, Jarred Cosart, and Paul Clemens — but the pitching down on the farm has not performed as expected this season. Cosart currently has a 3.97 ERA in Double-A, but has walked 21 batters in 38 innings. Clemens owns a 6.00 ERA in 57 Double-A innings. Left-hander Brett Oberholtzer was ranked as the fourth-best prospect in the Astros system to begin the year, but currently has a 5.17 ERA in 62.2 innings. At least, 20-year-old Mike Foltynewicz has been a bright spot down on the farm, posting a 2.27 ERA and continuing to develop in Class-A Lexington.

Not only have the pitching prospects underperformed in the minors, but also at the major league level, the organization has some serious issues in the starting rotation.

Pitcher ERA FIP Bud Norris 4.52 3.77 Wandy Rodiguez 3.14 4.07 J.A. Happ 4.31 4.14 Lucas Harrell 4.71 4.38 Jordan Lyles 5.73 5.71 Kyle Weiland 6.62 6.42

Their only starter with an above-average FIP at this point in the season is right-hander Bud Norris. The  only other reliable starter, veteran Wandy Rodriguez, will become a free agent after the season and is expected to be a prime trade candidate this July. Otherwise, if the above results from 2012 are of any indication, the Astros’ starting pitching options over the next half-decade do not appear overly appealing at this point in the development of the organization. Mark Appel would be a welcome addition to the starting pitching depth and potentially give the Astros the top-tier pitcher every single organization needs and desires.

But, unlike previous seasons that featured studs such as Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, and Gerrit Cole, the Houston Astros will likely not be drafting a potentially organizational-defining talent with the number one overall selection. From what people within the industry have been saying, the talent available simply does not warrant that lofty label. With that said, Appel fits what the Astros need as an organization, and he also ranks as one of the top players available in the 2012 draft class. The pick makes sense for the organization. He also provides some certainty in terms of signability — much more so than fellow number-one-candidate Byron Buxton — which projects to be a huge factor in draft position this season due to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Nothing guarantees that Mark Appel will be the first overall selection of the 2012 MLB Draft. Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa still remain possibilities. If Appel should come off the board first, however, he would immediately provide the top-tier starting pitching that the Astros’ organization desperately lacks. He would also become perhaps be the most significant acquisition GM Jeff Luhnow has made since taking over the reigns of team last December.

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