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Strasburg, top picks highlight AFL

Strasburg, top picks highlight AFL

The important numbers are: 1, 5, 12 and 18.

That's the No. 1 player taken in the 2009 Draft, five of the top 10 from the first round of said Draft and 12 of the Top 50 in MLB.com's updated Top 50 prospects list who will most likely be attending the 18th edition of the Arizona Fall League.

"This appears to be an exceptionally strong class of Major League prospects," AFL executive director Steve Cobb said. "We will feature over 20 first-round Draft picks, several high-ceiling position players and the pitching depth is unmatched vs. previous years."

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No. 1, of course, is Stephen Strasburg. The top pick of the Draft signed a record-breaking deal in the 11th hour with the Washington Nationals and, as reported on MLB.com on Saturday, he will make his unofficial professional debut as a member of the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League, which begins its 18th season on October 13.

A year ago, the Orioles sent their first-round pick, lefty Brian Matusz, to make his debut in the AFL. Matusz clearly used it as a springboard to jump on the fast track and is currently in the Orioles rotation. The Nationals wouldn't mind if the same fate awaited their top pick.

Joning Strasburg in the AFL are four other members from the most recent Draft's top 10 picks. No. 2 pick Dustin Ackley, the outfielder/first baseman from the University of North Carolina, will be a member of the Peoria Javelinas. Considered to be the most polished bat in the Draft class, Ackley will get to know Peoria well, first participating in instructional league play in the Mariners' Spring Training facility and then as part of the Fall League.

"It's a very good opportunity for the No. 2 selection in the 2009 Draft to face the challenge of competing against the top Minor Leaguers in baseball," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "It will give him the chance to jump start his career and get ready for Spring Training and the 2010 baseball season. We look forward to watching Dustin compete."

Two other top 10 pitchers will almost certainly be in Peoria, though on the Saguaros roster. Braves' top pick Mike Minor, who's made two appearances with Class A Rome in the South Atlantic League to date, will continue throwing in the AFL. It appears that the right-hander chosen right after Minor -- No. 8 Mike Leake -- will represent the Reds there as well. Leake isn't currently listed on the roster as he's currently working out in Florida, and the Reds want to make sure he's in good enough shape to participate after he transitions to instructional league play in Arizona for the first time. All things, however, do point to him being a part of the Saguaros pitching staff.

"It'll be a great stepping stone for me," Leake said. "It's the top Double-A and Triple-A guys. It'll give me a chance to prove myself and hopefully give me a chance to move up quicker."

No. 10 overall pick Drew Storen is already moving up quickly. The Stanford product signed almost immediately with the Nationals and has already been promoted twice. He has a 2.20 ERA over 32 2/3 combined innings, allowing just 20 hits (.172 batting average against) and striking out 43 while walking only seven, and picking up eight saves. He has yet to allow a run in six Double-A outings. Unlike the other first-rounders taken above, Storen has already gotten a taste of what pro competition is like.

"I want to keep building off what I'm dong now, making adjustments and getting better each outing," Storen said. "I hope to put myself in position to help out the Nationals at a higher level next year."

He's hoping that might happen with that other right-hander the Nats took in the first round. Fans aren't the only ones anticipating Strasburg's first steps as a professional pitcher.

"I'm excited," Storen said. "Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come for thee future. It'll be great to meet him and see him throw. I hope I'll be able to close his games and hopefully it'll be the first of many I get to do that."

An even dozen of the most recent Top 50 prospects, including No. 1 prospect Jason Heyward, will try to get their hacks in against some of those first-round arms. The Braves outfielder just turned 20 and has been dominating in Double-A. The Futures Gamer has hit a combined .315 this year across two levels, .338 since his promotion, and the 2007 first-rounder has a very impressive .959 OPS for the year. Joining Heyward will be teammate Freddie Freeman, the No. 15 overall prospect in the rankings. They'll both play for the Saguaros, as will Reds first base prospect Yonder Alonso (No. 18) and No. 27 prospect, Houston 2008 first-rounder and catcher Jason Castro.

Perhaps just a half-step behind Heyward in terms of high-ceiling outfield prospects is the Marlins' Mike Stanton (No. 3 on the list). Stanton hit 39 homers in his first full season and has followed that up with 25 this season while reaching Double-A before his 20th birthday to establish himself as perhaps the best power prospect in the Minors. He'll play for the Mesa Solar Sox alongside No. 40 prospect and fellow Marlin prospect Matt Dominguez. Joining the Marlins duo on the Solar Sox will be the Cubs' top 2008 Draft pick, Josh Vitters, who comes in at No. 31, and Angels speedy outfielder Peter Bourjos, the No. 42 prospect on the list.

Giants catcher Buster Posey has made it all the way up to Triple-A in his first season and the 2008 first-rounder, No. 5 on the prospect list, will try to keep it going in the AFL with the Scottsdale Scorpions. Phillies outfielder Domonic Brown (No. 24), whom Philly fans are thrilled wasn't included in any deadline deals, will show off his tools alongside Posey in Scottsdale.

The Nationals' Derek Norris will be another top backstop in Arizona as the No. 47 prospect will get the chance to form what many hope will be the future battery in Washington with Strasburg and Storen on the Phoenix roster.

The Royals' top Draft pick in 2007, Mike Moustakas, will play third for the Surprise Rafters this fall. He's the 29th-best prospect according to the rankings.

All this talent and the rosters aren't even finished yet. Teams will fill in the TBA's as Minor League seasons ends and player development staffs make final evaluations. That will mean even more talent headed to the desert on Oct. 13.

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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