March 10, 2016
CLEARWATER, Fla. – The most crowded spring training clubhouse in recent memory - 65 players when full-squad workouts began two weeks ago – became a little less crowded on Thursday, when the Phillies sent their top three pitching prospects to minor league camp.
Mark Appel, Jake Thompson and Zach Eflin packed their things and headed across the Carpenter Complex to continue their work in minor league camp. All made the journey, as the team's first round of cuts this spring, less than 24 hours after pitching for the Phillies at Fort Myers against the Twins in a 4-2 win in split-squad action on Wednesday.
“I think yesterday was really good for me, Jake and Zach,” said Appel, the former No.1 overall pick who came over in the December trade that sent Ken Giles to the Houston Astros. “I think the three of us are going to have a lot of fun over there, we’re going to get ready for the season and we’re all going got work hard and getting back here soon. So, I think it’s a really good place to be right now.”
"If they knew that I wasn’t going to start on the big league club this year than it’s a great thing for us to go over there instead of getting one or two innings every week, go ahead and get three to five, get extended and get ready for the season.”
The move was hardly unexpected.
As the Phillies finish up their second full week of Grapefruit League games, the innings will become sparse for pitchers expected to open the season in the minor leagues. The starters that will be in the rotation a month from now – Aaron Nola, Jeremy Hellickson, etc. – will begin pitching more than 2-3 innings per spring start.
With 30-some pitchers in camp, there are only so many innings to go around at Bright House Field.
“I think the key thing for me is to be able to get innings,” said Appel, who allowed one unearned run while striking out three and walking no one in two innings in Fort Myers on Wednesday. “And so I’m looking at this as a great opportunity. Go down and get my body right, get ready for the season. … If they knew that I wasn’t going to start on the big league club this year than it’s a great thing for us to go over there instead of getting one or two innings every week, go ahead and get three to five, get extended and get ready for the season.”
All three right-handed pitchers came over in three of the trades that have helped define the Phillies rebuild in the last 16 months. Elfin was the first, arriving in the Jimmy Rollins deal in December of 2014, then Thompson arrived in the Cole Hamels’ trade last July.
Appel came over with four others pitchers, including two who are competing for a rotation spot this spring, in the aforementioned Giles deal this winter.
The trio is likely to start the 2016 season at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that they could form the nucleus for a young major league rotation – along with Nola, Jerad Eickhoff and Vince Velasquez – in 2017 or, perhaps, later this summer.
“I think that’s the idea,” said the 22-year-old Thompson, who went 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA in seven starts at Double-A Reading after arriving to the organization last summer. “Obviously things happen and people pan out and people don’t. But hopefully, I think the Phillies are definitely building their team that way, not just with pitchers, but with some of the young position players, too. Hopefully, we’ll all get up at the same time and play for 10 years. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”
Of all of the young, growing talent in the Phillies clubhouse this spring – the pitchers and hitters such as J.P. Crawford, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Andrew Knapp, Roman Quinn, etc. – Appel may be the biggest wild card. The 24-year-old northern California native was drafted in the top 10 picks of the MLB draft in consecutive years, most recently as the No.1 overall pick by the Astros in 2013.
Appel’s talent hasn’t come to fruition in the minor leagues: he went 10-3 with a 4.99 ERA in 25 starts between Triple-A and Double-A in 2015. He had a 1.413 WHIP and 2.16 K/BB ratio in 131 2/3 innings.
Before he left the clubhouse Thursday morning, Appel was asked if the new set of evaluators and coaches that have watched him this spring have altered anything with his pitching. Instead, it was the pitcher who said he had done some tinkering.
“I think I’ve changed a little bit of mindset, mentality,” Appel said. “I think going back to what really made me successful in college - baseball is baseball. It’s the same at whatever level you’re at, just the talent is different. Knowing that I believe my talent is at a level that I can compete at the big league level, and so, just getting the mindset/mentality of how I want to attack hitters and use the tools God has given me to do the the best I know how.”