Collier: Appel snub a small bump in road
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Climate change is real, maybe you've heard, but if you're still scoffing at the relevant science, just check in on the Pirates.
The external understanding of the ballclub's general management climate has long been that anything management fails to do probably should have been done and, in its seemingly more virulent mirror image, everything it actually does probably should have been avoided.
Competence and Pirates management are no longer mutually exclusive terms necessarily, which is what happens by default when the major league club finds itself in first place one July after another. So the fact that Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly did not find a way by the 5 p.m. deadline Friday to sign the first-round draft choice is likely more a footnote than a foot fault. Not a pratfall but a practicum.
Therefore, coveted right-hander pitcher Mark Appel can go back to tweeting scripture and pitching for Stanford, both noble pursuits, and return for another round of nobody-seems-to-realize-how-good-I-am in the 2013 draft, but few expect the Pirates to be in a position to draft him again.
That's the good news.
Instead, by not agreeing to a contract with Appel and superagent Scott Boras, the Pirates will get their usual first-round turn next year -- you're hoping it's the 30th pick, you know, the one the World Series winner gets -- plus the ninth pick overall for "failing" to sign their top pick this year.
So what's the bad news?
You mean other than that Jennifer Lopez is leaving American Idol?
The Pirates as constituted at this moment aren't exactly hurting for pitching, in Pittsburgh or in their minor league system.
Truth is, of all the difficult decisions lined up for Huntington until the end of this month, the one that passed with the July 13 deadline was the least daunting. Huntington had $2.9 million to pay Appel according to the game's new draft rules, and might well have augmented it with a couple of hundred thousand still lying around from the unspent balance of about $6.5 million for all his picks, but it has been clear for some time that Appel was going to turn up his nose at anything and everything under $6 million.
That's what the Houston Astros reportedly offered him as they prepared to make him the first pick of the draft in June, and, as the worst team in baseball at the start of the season's second half, the Astros could easily be in a position to do it again.
It was good that the Pirates rolled the dice on Appel when he fell into their laps with the eighth pick, and it was doubly good that they did not allow Boras to warp the new system in favor of himself and a potentially overvalued client. With Boras, that's always a possibility, or does the name Barry Zito no longer crack a bell?
It's not that long ago. Boras escorted Zito around the free-agent market of 2006-07, pointing out similarities to Sandy Koufax, among others. At the time, Zito had won 95 games over six full seasons in Oakland. He was making less than $8 million.
In the six seasons since, he has won 50 games. He's making $19 million this year and is owed $20 million next year.
The standard amount of caution delivered by that reality, plus the new draft provisions that would have penalized the Pirates a first-round pick had they stretched toward even $4 million for Appel, made Huntington's job pretty easy in this instance.
What's lies between here and July 31 is appreciably more complicated and potentially treacherous.
There's little argument Huntington needs to be aggressive in the non-waiver trade market that closes on that day. Even before manager Clint Hurdle's offense sprang to life in June, Huntington had finally accumulated enough quality pitching to keep the Pirates in a divisional race a year ago past the surrender point, on or about Aug. 1. His course appeared clearly drawn. He needed to trade for a productive hitter that could be plugged in almost anywhere in a lineup where no one not named McCutchen was doing much of anything.
But now, the 2012 Pirates aren't so unbalanced. They led the majors in runs scored in June. There are fireworks almost every night regardless of the promotional calendar.
This doesn't mean the club is without needs, only that its greatest needs aren't so obvious. Justin Upton seems an obvious remedy to some, but the 31-homer, 88-RBI man the young Diamondbacks stud was a year ago has not returned to the Valley of the Sun.
Upton has seven homers.
The Pirates have a backup catcher with seven homers, one Fort McKenry.
Any club can be strengthened with a decorated starting pitcher, but the price can be calamitous, especially if the pitcher isn't given to hanging around Pittsburgh at the end of a contract the Nuttings are unlikely to duplicate, much less exceed.
So yes it's complicated. The next 17 days are layered with potholes, sinkholes, hairpin turns with no guard rails, sinister hitchhikers, long-leggedy beasts and assorted goblins.
But don't look back.
This Appel business? A speed bump.
First Published July 14, 2012 12:06 am