And if the AFL as a whole is a stepping stone to the big leagues, perhaps the Rising Stars game is a trampoline. Just looking at the players who have participated in this cream of the crop game over the previous four years shows that those who will be at Surprise Stadium on Saturday (9 p.m. ET start on MLB.com and MLB Network) will very likely be in the big leagues in the very near future.
"It's unbelievable," said Royals prospect Eric Hosmer, who will play first base for the West Division Rising Stars. "Any time you can add a game like this or an All-Star Game to your resume, it's unbelievable. You look at the names just from last year, and they're making an impact at the Major League level. It's crazy to think we're in the same shoes that Buster Posey was a year ago, and he's celebrating a World Series."
A total of 28 of last year's 50 Rising Stars played in the big leagues during the 2010 season, with some like Posey, Ike Davis, Mike Leake, Stephen Strasburg and Starlin Castro making large contributions.
Many of those names, like Hosmer this year, were former first-round picks. That's what this game was originally designed to promote. It's still doing that, of course. This year's Rising Stars rosters have a total of 19 first-rounders (including the supplemental first round). Bryce Harper isn't one of them, however, as taxi squad players -- as well as those who weren't on an Opening Day roster -- aren't eligible for the game.
"The Rising Stars Game was originally staged as a way to feature as many of the first-round Draft selections assigned to the AFL as possible in one game," said AFL director Steve Cobb, who works with scouting and Minor League directors of every Major League organization to form the rosters, which have at least one representative from each system. "The game has blossomed into a high-profile 'offseason' baseball event for professional scouts from all organizations to evaluate how close many former first-round selections are from reaching the Major League ranks."
Not every first-rounder takes the same path. Hosmer went No. 3 overall in the 2008 Draft and made it to Double-A this past season. Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 pick in the '09 Draft, made his unofficial pro debut in the AFL a year ago and reached Triple-A. A guy like Charlie Culberson, taken No. 51 overall back in 2007, has had a bit of a harder road, but that makes his selection perhaps taste a bit sweeter.
"In three and a half years of pro ball, I've never been on an All-Star team," said Culberson, who was hitting .403 over his first 14 games in the AFL, good for third in the league. "This is obviously the best talent I've been around. I've had a few good weeks, which have helped me.
"I've put in some hard work and have been playing well. For me, it means I'm not out of place, and maybe I can play at the next level. It puts my name out there a little more, showing everyone what I can do. I'm pretty excited about it."
Participants are also pretty pumped up about the game being broadcast nationally on MLB Network and across the globe on MLB.com. It's not often that these players have gotten the opportunity to play in front of a national audience, not to mention what is typically the largest AFL crowd of the season, and it's clearly giving them some added motivation.
"I'm very excited to be a part of this game," Phillies pitching prospect, and MLBlogger, Josh Zeid said. "The talent is very deep. There are so many potential 2011 Major Leaguers, so to be invited to play on Saturday is going to be very exciting. Especially since it'll be on MLB network, all of my friends and family will be able to watch it as well."
"I was selected to participate in the AFL Rising Stars game, which is really exciting because not only is it an honor to play in this game, it is going to be televised on MLB Network," Pirates catching prospect Tony Sanchez wrote on his blog, Catching up with a Pirate. "The only thing I want to do is go deep in a nationally televised game with all my friends and family watching back home. That would be unreal. So hopefully I'll see a bunch of you guys out there and complete my task. "
First pitch is set for 9:06 p.m. ET, with the Yankees' Manny Banuelos pitching for the East and Royals lefty Mike Montgomery taking the hill for the West. With the additional incentive of a cash bonus for the victors adding to it all, it's a game that tends to be an exhibition in name only.
"If the past four Rising Stars Games are any indication, expect all players to give maximum effort to win this game," Cobb said. "This game has become a great 'one-night rivalry' featured on a national stage. The game will be exciting until the last out is made."
One of the best matchups of the night is one that won't be seen. Hosmer has built a reputation as one of the better left-handed hitting prospects in the game. Montgomery gets the same plaudits as a lefty hurler. To see them go head-to-head would possibly be the highlight of the night. Unfortunately for prospect fans, they both call the Royals organization home and are on the same squad, as they have been for much of their young careers.
"Me and Monty, we talk about facing each other all the time," Hosmer laughed. "I never give him credit, but it's been fun playing first base and watching him pitch all year. Hopefully, we'll finish up a good year for both of us. I'm glad I'm on the same team as him and don't have to face him. You're not excited to face lefties, but especially a guy throwing 98 mph, with that curve -- it's not too fun."