We've taken two polls now and the overwhelming choice for the Cubs #1 pick has been Mark Appel. So while it seems most Cubs fans want the big RHP out of Stanford, the bigger question may be whether he'll actually be available. The Astros pick before the Cubs and have shown interest him in the past. They tried to negotiate a pre-draft deal with him last year before turning to SS-3B Carlos Correa.
Could they take another shot at Appel?
One line of thought has been that Appel and his hardline agent, Scott Boras, have little to no leverage because Appel is a college senior -- so the Astros may be able to have their cake and eat it too. That is, they'll be able to draft Appel, pay him well under-slot, and then use the saved money to stock up on over-slots later in the draft.
Personally, I don't think it's going to be that easy. It's hard to imagine Boras would back himself into a negotiating corner without an ace up his sleeve. Yes, Boras has less leverage but it'd be a mistake to assume he won't maximize what leverage he still has. Part of that leverage is that Appel simply represents the consensus best player in the draft. The Astros will be under some pressure to add talent to a team that seems light years away from competing right now. Appel is also a local product who could be in the majors quickly, possibly as soon as this season. The Astros do hold a big advantage in that they will be given an extra pick if they fail to sign him, but right now there is no player in the 2014 draft who is as sure a thing as Appel -- with the exception, of course, of LHP Carlos Rodon, who will go first barring any changes.
But will that be enough? Boras has shown he is willing to go the distance -- and beyond. He has a track record of doing so and coming out ahead in the end. It cannot be assumed he is only bluffing when he says he is willing to test the absolute boundaries when it comes to negotiations. Most notably, he did his with Jason Varitek.
Varitek, you may remember, was drafted 21st overall by the Minnesota Twins in 1993 but turned down a market value $435,00 offer and did not sign despite being a college junior. He re-entered the draft as a college senior and went even higher, chosen 14th overall by the Seattle Mariners. If the Mariners thought they could play the leverage card, they were mistaken. Despite being drafted 7 slots higher, the Mariners offered Varitek less money ($350,000). Predictably, they did not sign him for that season. Varitek opted to play for an independent league instead and the Mariners eventually buckled, paying him a $650,000 bonus.
Yes, the circumstances are a little different with the new CBA. There is a cap on the amount of money a team can spend, so if Appel doesn't sign, there simply won't be any money left to give him without the team getting sacked with luxury taxes and the loss of draft pick(s). One thing that hasn't changed, however, is Boras' philosophy. He believes his players have a right to negotiate a market value (or better) deal and it seems naive to think he'll give up that right for Appel. This means that, despite having less leverage, it's very unlikely he signs a pre-draft deal.
If the Astros want to use the same draft strategy as last season, then that Boras negotiating philosophy poses a problem. Last year they were able to sign Correa on draft day and knew exactly how much money they had left to sign over-slots like Lance McCullers and Rio Ruiz. Correa is an excellent prospect, but it's those latter two players that had some observers raving about the Astros draft last season. Boras is almost certainly not going to afford them that same luxury of financial certainty and flexibility they enjoyed last year.
Complicating that situation even further is Boras' good relationship with the Cubs front office and the fact that the Cubs have a "Best Player Available" philosophy in the first round. As shown with Albert Almora last year, they are willing to pay market value to get that BPA. Boras can be reasonably certain that if the Cubs feel Appel is the BPA, they will match or even exceed the bonus given for last year's #2 pick, Byron Buxton. That bonus was $6M. If he is reasonably sure the Cubs will offer that amount or more, then Boras can float out pre-draft bonus demand rumors accordingly in an effort to manipulate the draft in his favor.
Then we have to consider the Boras/Appel relationship with the Astros. There was a rumor last year that the Astros did offer Appel that $6M amount but since then I have heard that the offer was closer to the one they gave Correa. This could not have sat well with him and it wouldn't surprise me if Boras will do whatever he can to avoid being put in the same scenario with less leverage.
I'm not ruling out the Astros drafting Appel by any means. If the Astros agree with the consensus and believe he's the best player in the draft, then have the opportunity and means to select him. But it's not a slam dunk. I think drafting him will mean swallowing their pride and altering their draft strategy to accommodate a significantly larger signing bonus than they offered last season. The question will be whether the Astros feel Appel is so much better than the rest of the field that he'll be worth the trouble for them. If Houston ultimately decides to select him, then the Cubs will have plenty of options. And we'll cover that in a follow-up article later this week.