Houston Has A Problem

There was grumbling in the Houston Astros clubhouse over struggling bonus baby Mark Appel. They're right to grouse, if not necessarily about that.
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The Houston Astros have not called up Mark Appel, the pitcher that the team chose first overall in the 2013 MLB Draft. They are a long way from doing that, for a variety of reasons that, for the moment, begin and end with the fact that Appel was getting torched in Class A before being promoted to Double-A, quite possibly for his own protection.

The only reason that Appel was at Minute Maid Park on Sunday was so the team could watch him throw a bullpen session. According to Jose de Jesus Ortiz of the Houston Chronicle, that was enough to anger a few of the big club's players. One anonymous player summed up the controversy:

So now you get rewarded for having an 11 ERA? And you have two guys down there (at Class A Lancaster) with 2 ERAs who can’t get called up?

Appel's ERA (actually 9.74) comes with a 5.33 FIP and nine home runs served up in a mere 44 1/3 innings. Lancaster is one of the most difficult parks for pitchers in affiliated baseball, and it's possible the Astros simply think a change of scenery is necessary. To the outside observer, there wouldn’t seem to be much of a difference between sending somebody out to watch Appel at Double-A Corpus Christi and summoning the starter for a closer look at Houston headquarters. To the Astros players, this is clearly a different story.

The difference was enough to force Astros manager Bo Porter to comment on the situation. Sports in general, and baseball in priggish particular, often claims to be one of the world's few meritocracies to live up to its ideals. Granting Appel -- a second-year professional with 22 Single-A starts to his names -- access to the major league clubhouse and a promotion to Double-A when any other prospect would be worrying about a demotion or unconditional release seems to spit in the face of meritocracy. Porter acknowledged that conflict, sort of:

When you talk about earning a right to be here, I think it's something again that's a well known fact in baseball that I think that everyone does everything they can to abide by. But at the same time, I'm not going to speak for the feelings of the people that were probably offended.

The corollary to Porter's attempt to dodge the issue is that while the idea of meritocracy is cherished, it cannot always be maintained, or upheld equally across the spectrum. Some things -- like the $6.35 million signing bonus Appel signed -- place certain players on a different track than others. Anybody who can't see that the system has been that way for ages is either blind or delusional.

This is not to challenge the rankled Astros’ eyesight, but it seems only fair to note how much they have invested in baseball’s meritocratic delusion. This is even more true because the Astros have recently dropped the façade. As I wrote at The Cauldron last week, the Astros' treatment of Brady Aiken was merely the latest in a long line of shady dealings with amateur players, by all teams across all eras. But the Astros have made no effort to hide their dispassionate efficiency-seeking behavior. Other teams at least pretend their player-team relationship is a symbiotic one. These Astros have never bothered with that.

I find neither approach particularly honorable -- every team's goal, no matter how warm or familial or otherwise decent it might come off in the press, is to acquire as much talent as possible for as little money as they can get away with. But without the belief that strong performance can win a job -- and the accompanying praise from coaches and prestige within the organization -- life in a losing situation like Houston's can get bleak in a hurry.

Dave Meggyesy, an NFL player who retired due to disgust over the conditions of the game in 1969, summed up the importance of maintaining this façade to the athlete's motivation. In his 1970 autobiography, Out of Their League, Meggyesy described his feelings toward the game:

...I wasn't playing football for any great love of the game but primarily to win approval... like most of the other players, I had been introduced to a system of rewards -- psychological and material -- and I played mainly for them... I just can't separate the game from the payoffs -- approval, money, adulation.

The baseball world is not quite as psychologically intense or physically destructive as football's, but advancing through the minor leagues and accepting the grind of 162 games in 180 days requires a belief in the system, and faith that it will dispense those payoffs as fairly as possible. By pulling up the curtain and making the way business is done so clear, particularly with such a bleak competitive situation at the major league level, the Astros are courting this sort of discontent.

In one of the best summaries of the culture conflict within the Astros yet, from Evan Drellich, also of the Chronicle, Jeff Luhnow claims his front office's strategy isn't so outlandish. "Ninety-five percent of what we do is very similar to what all of baseball does," he said.

In this case, Luhnow's right -- bonus babies have been pampered in every farm system since the first "ivory hunter" scouts started throwing their financial weight around. But when the collectively accepted rules of the baseball world are so blatantly thrown aside and revealed as fiction, it shouldn’t be a surprise when the players push back. It may seem silly to get so upset about a bullpen session, but that’s not the only thing the Astros have to be angry about.


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Appel at Double-A Corpus Christi and summoning the starter for a closer look at Houston headquarters. To the Astros players, this is clearly a different story.
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first overall in the 2013 MLB Draft. They are a long way from doing that, for a variety of reasons that, for the moment, begin and end with the fact that Appel was getting torched in Class A before being promoted to Double-A, quite possibly for his own protection.
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Appel at Double-A Corpus Christi and summoning the starter for a closer look at Houston headquarters. To the Astros players, this is clearly a different story.
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Appel at Double-A Corpus Christi and summoning the starter for a closer look at Houston headquarters. To the Astros players, this is clearly a different story.
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