Questions remain whether Appel is No. 1


The season began with no clear No. 1 pick, and that appears to be the way it remains. Stanford right-hander Mark Appel started the campaign as the favorite to go first overall to the Houston Astros, and that might still be the case, but there's been no separation between those in the top 5.

The No. 1 talent, Appling County High School outfielder Byron Buxton, is cruising along, batting .500 at last check, but is at a disadvantage facing mediocre competition. He is, however, performing well, showing patience at the plate and displaying the overall physical tools of a No. 1 selection.

Appel started the season with questions about his breaking ball and ability to miss bats consistently despite a mid-to-upper 90s fastball. Those questions remain after his most recent outing. The 6-foot-5 Cardinal ace went the distance versus Washington, sitting 95-97 mph with the four-seamer in the first inning, but struggling with his command of the pitch, often falling behind in the count.

He did settle down and throw more strikes the rest of the way, but he appeared to be purposely backing off the velocity in order to do so. In the second inning, Appel pitched at 92-95 mph and sat 91-93 much of the game thereafter, mixing in an above-average changeup. He consistently pulled his 82-86 mph slider out of the zone, away from right-handed batters, and abandoned the pitch for significant stretches in the middle six innings.

By the time the ninth inning arrived, Stanford had a lead and Appel was firing away at 88-90 mph.

Appel has shown an ability to hold his velocity, so there aren't any immediate red flags about the radar readings in the late innings, but there are growing concerns that he's simply not going to miss enough bats to warrant the top overall selection in this year's draft.

He struck out just three batters in this start, and despite a fast start in this department, has fanned less than a batter per inning this season. Has Appel's lack of answers to those questions opened the door for Buxton with the Astros? It's still too early to tell, but one has to believe the new front office in Houston is considering multiple players, and will for the coming weeks.

Arms race

The contenders for Appel's crown as the top college arm produced mixed results this past weekend, with San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer and Texas A&M's Michael Wacha putting forth solid efforts and LSU's Kevin Gausman impressing scouts despite a poor final line.

Zimmer went all eight innings in a 2-1 loss, allowing two earned runs on six hits and striking out nine. The right-hander now boasts a 1.99 ERA and a 60-7 K/BB ratio in eight starts this season, and if his one poor outing is removed from the equation his earned run average would be under one.

Wacha also went eight innings, yielding three runs, all earned, on eight hits and two walks. He was efficient, throwing 76 of 109 pitches for strikes, and whiffed eight. Wacha remains a potential top 10 pick, but scouts still pine for a more consistent breaking ball.

Gausman faced top-ranked Florida and surrendered five earned runs on nine hits, but did punch out eight over 6&frac13; innings. He got Gators catcher Mike Zunino twice, both times swinging.

Gausman battled control problems, but as one scout said, he showed why he's among the top prospects in the class. "You could tell he didn't have command, but he was poised and let his stuff work for him to get through," the scout said. "That is a very, very good lineup and to get into the seventh having given up just two runs shows why we're all here to see him."

Duke's Marcus Stroman stood out for his performance over the weekend, and Keith Law scouted the right-hander here.

In the land of prep arms, Harvard-Westlake right-hander Lucas Giolito has yet to start a game since being diagnosed with a sprained UCL in his throwing elbow, which has given teammate and left-hander Max Fried, and Orlando-area right-hander Zach Eflin, the opportunity to carry the torch.

Also improving his stock of late is Lance McCullers Jr., despite the same concerns that his delivery screams reliever and his fastball command needs improvement. For the reasons Kiley McDaniel pointed out last week, McCullers' stock has a ceiling and that ceiling might be late in the first round, despite the best raw stuff in the prep class.

Around the batter's box

With Arizona State's Deven Marrero's stock slipping due to a lackluster first seven weeks of the season, the weakest link in the class continues to get weaker. The college bats aren't wowing as a group, but there are a few gaining momentum.

UCLA right fielder Jeff Gelalich had a tough weekend, but has plus power and works the count consistently as he looks for a pitch he can drive. Clemson's Richie Shaffer carries a similar approach to the plate, and might be the best in the country at squaring up the fastball when he gets the opportunity.

Gelalich had a tough weekend statistically, but received a rave review from one area scout as a result. "He never seemed to let his previous at-bat bother him," the scout said. "That's a very positive sign in this game."

Shaffer went 2-for-3 with a walk versus Stroman on Friday, singling to right in his first trip to the plate and singling up the middle in the second trip. He finished the weekend 7-for-13 with two walks and a double and is batting .365/.493/.670 with seven homers and an impressive 31-23 BB/K ratio for the year. The third baseman is firmly in the conversation for the top 20 and could conceivably go in the top 10-12 picks.

Zunino singled and doubled off Gausman and added a double off the LSU bullpen and is hitting .351/.407/.693 with nine home runs for the year. If the draft were today, the chances Zunino gets out of the top five are very slim.