Appel vs. Gray and the debate in Cubs draft room

Appel vs. Gray and the debate in Cubs draft room

SportsTalk Live: The future of the Cubs

May 26, 2013, 2:45 pm
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CINCINNATI – The Cubs might be approaching their Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf moment.

The Indianapolis Colts selected a Super Bowl MVP quarterback with the first overall pick in the 1998 NFL draft, while the San Diego Chargers wound up with an all-time bust at No. 2. The parallels aren’t exact, but the stakes are almost as high and the consequences could be far-reaching.

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The Cubs have narrowed their choices at No. 2 to four college players. While it’s not simply a two-horse race between Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray and Stanford’s Mark Appel, those pitchers have emerged at the top of the board, with ceilings high enough to justify the pick.

It depends on what the Houston Astros do with the No. 1 pick on June 6, when Cubs officials will gather in their Chicago draft room and evaluate two third basemen – San Diego’s Kris Bryant and North Carolina’s Colin Moran. That’s part of the debate: Historically, pitching has proven to be far less predictable and a much riskier bet.

While team president Theo Epstein, general manager Jed Hoyer and scouting/player development chief Jason McLeod fly around the country, the major-league coaching staff has also been breaking down video as part of the thorough background checks.    

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Appel is viewed as more polished after returning to Palo Alto, Calif., for his senior year while Gray’s stock has soared during a dominant junior season. Either one would help an organization starved for pitching.

“I think both could have fairly quick impacts,” pitching coach Chris Bosio said Sunday at Great American Ball Park. “The overall consensus is Appel is probably closer because he’s had more innings. Gray’s improved with experience. Appel’s been in that limelight. He’s a Friday-night-special guy. This guy’s pitched on a big stage. He’s got big stuff.”

The Cubs passed on Appel last year, taking high school outfielder Albert Almora with the sixth overall pick. Appel, who’s advised by super-agent Scott Boras, fell to No. 8 and turned down $3.8 million from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

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“They’re obviously pretty special arms, two different kind of guys,” manager Dale Sveum said. “Appel’s so advanced as far as his secondary pitches. (Gray’s just overpowering), easy, easy life on the fastball. It looks like he’s throwing 85 (mph) when it’s 100.”

The right-handed Bryant stands 6-foot-5 and has generated 31 homers and 62 RBI through 58 games this season and anyone who’s watched the Cubs this season knows this lineup could use an anchor.

Sveum described Moran – who bats left-handed – as having a “Robin Ventura-type swing” that’s produced a .353 average, 13 homers and 84 RBI through 59 games for the Tar Heels. Moran’s uncle, B.J. Surhoff, was drafted No. 1 overall by the Milwaukee Brewers in 1985 and played there with Sveum.

Still, it will difficult to pass on these arms, especially if one could join the rotation at some point in 2015.

Appel – who’s 10-4 with a 2.12 ERA and 130 strikeouts against 23 walks through 106.1 innings – has probably been tested by a tougher conference schedule in the Pac-12. But the Cubs had their doubts about the 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-hander heading into this season.

Gray – a 6-foot-4, 239-pound right-hander who’s 9-2 with a 1.55 ERA and 127 strikeouts against 21 walks through 110 innings – might have more upside.

“Both have bright futures,” Bosio said. “That’s Theo, that’s Jed, that’s Jason – they’re doing their due diligence along with our scouts doing the grunt work. They’re not easy calls. There are no crystal balls. We’ve all seen very, very good young players drafted high with great stuff that haven’t made it, and then we’ve seen mid-round guys that have.”

Bosio – who pitched 11 seasons in the big leagues and used to be an advance scout for the Brewers – had a simple response when asked if there’s a type he’d rather work with here.

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“I’ll take both,” he said.

The Cubs can only hope they wind up with their Peyton Manning and not a Ryan Leaf.  

“It’s an extremely tough call,” Bosio said. “That’s where all the background stuff, the interviews, the one-on-ones (come into play). I’m sure these guys will have a laundry list of 50, 60, 100, 200 questions. Knowing Theo and Jed – probably 400 questions. They’re going to be absolutely thorough and every rock will be turned over two or three times.”