PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Derek Shelton well remembers his time spent at the Arizona Fall League.
"You couldn't help notice all the talent out there," said Shelton, who is now the Rays' hitting coach. "That was 2002 and I was coaching in the Yankees' organization. I was the secondary hitting coach for the Maryvale Saguaros. I wasn't the official coach, but organizations could send coaches. The team wanted me out there because Drew Henson was there."
Henson was a former University of Michigan quarterback and a highly regarded third-base prospect, as per the six-year, $18-million contract he signed with the Yankees rather than heading for the NFL. Shelton, who served as the Staten Island manager at the time, specifically worked with Henson to try and help him shorten his swing. Employing a looping swing to that point, Henson had struck out 151 times that summer at Triple-A Columbus.
Thus, Shelton and Henson embarked on their journey while with the Saguaros.
"[Henson] was great, he worked hard," Shelton said. "He worked every day. And I had coached him the year before that, so we had a good relationship. So, he was a hard worker and he was good. I think there was a situation there where he was still learning the game because of having played football and going back and forth.
"He's a long-armed guy, so he had long action. We were trying to shorten it up to make it more serviceable. There was so much power there, trying to get more contact."
While going about his daily business with Henson, Shelton could not help noticing his surroundings.
"I remember how good of a developmental league it was," Shelton said. "Teams were sending all their top prospects [to the AFL]."
"We had a good group of guys," Shelton said.
Shelton also got to see the likes of other future Major Leaguers like Rocco Baldelli, Jorge Cantu, Scott Hairston, Matt Holliday, Adam LaRoche, John Buck, Garrett Atkins, Cody Ross, Gerald Laird, Mark Teixeira, Shane Victorino, Brandon Phillips, Bobby Jenks, Brandon Webb, Chone Figgins, Kevin Youkilis and David DeJesus.
Of that group, Shelton remembers seeing Teixeira for the first time.
"You could just tell he was going to be really good," Shelton said. "The thing with Teixeira, he does everything so well, but he never looks that good doing it. But the ball just jumped off his bat so hot all the time."
Shelton noted that the AFL is a good place for players to develop.
"Playing there helps a ton," Shelton said. "Getting all of those extra innings or at-bats, or something as simple as being in a different environment can expedite a player's path to the Major Leagues, and I think a lot of things are learned because you're subjected to different people from different organizations. So, you're exposed to different thoughts, which can allow you to get outside of your mindset a little bit. It's very important for development for getting to the Major Leagues."
Shelton gained valuable experience while in Arizona, too.
"When you're inside your own organization, you get solely focused on what you're doing," Shelton said. "So [it's a good experience] any time you get the chance to interact with different people and talk to them about how they do things and what they do. And I was a young coach. I was really young. So it was good for me to be around different people. To see what's going on.
"Blaise Ilsley was our pitching coach, and he's now the bullpen coach for St. Louis. So you meet guys along the way that you become friends with. So that was kind of cool."
Shelton parlayed what he learned while in Arizona and during his six seasons in the Yankees' organization to move on to a position as the Indians Minor League hitting coordinator. At the age of 34, he advanced to take over the reins as Indians hitting coach, replacing Hall of Famer Eddie Murray on June 4, 2005.
Shelton was hired by the Rays on Oct. 21, 2009, following Steve Henderson as the sixth hitting coach in club history.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.