Arizona Fall League stocked with top talent

Arizona Fall League loaded with talent

A year ago, the Arizona Fall League championship-winning Phoenix Desert Dogs had the potential 2009 American League Rookie of the Year on the roster. He was joined by a leadoff hitter currently on a postseason roster. They had to face the potential National League Rookie of the Year in that title game.

That, in a nutshell, is what the AFL is all about and it's a great reason why everyone should be paying attention as the league's 18th season opens play on Tuesday. This year's performers could be next year's AL top rookie candidate (Andrew Bailey), NL top rookie possibility (Tommy Hanson) or a contributor to a postseason push (Eric Young Jr.).

There's no question all eyes will be on the Phoenix Desert Dogs, for more than one reason. Even with annual roster shifts, Phoenix will be aiming for its sixth straight AFL championship this fall, starting when the Desert Dogs host the Mesa Solar Sox at 12:35 p.m. local time.

"It hasn't come up yet, but I definitely can see myself letting them know," said A's pitching prospect James Simmons, who was on the 2007 championship Desert Dogs team. "They talked about it when I was here two years ago. They told us we had a reputation to uphold.

"That was the mentality. The manager let us know that everyone was out to get us. I think it helped me, to motivate me. When that championship game comes, you want to walk off that field knowing you're getting a ring. That's a good feeling."

There's likely to be more attention on Friday, Oct. 16, when the Scottsdale Scorpions travel to Phoenix Municipal Stadium for a night game at 6:35 p.m. That's reportedly when Stephen Strasburg, Washington National and No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 Draft, is scheduled to make his AFL debut.

It's not the first time a pitcher has gone basically from the Draft to the Fall League to make his professional debut (instructional league action aside) -- Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta of the Orioles did it the past two years -- but none with the anticipation of Strasburg, who's heralded as one of the best pitching prospects to come via the Draft in history.

"I'm real fired up," said the Nationals' other 2009 first-rounder in Arizona, Drew Storen. "It was good to get back into the swing of things at instructs. Seeing Strasburg throw in person was pretty cool. Seeing the top level guys on my team here, I'm excited to play with them and to face some of the guys on the other teams."

Strasburg, Storen and Simmons won't be the only names worth watching in that Scottsdale-Phoenix game on Friday. Depending on how the lineup is set, there's a good chance Strasburg will pitch to the No. 5 pick of the 2008 Draft, Giants catcher Buster Posey. Posey has made a bee-line up San Francisco's system, making his big-league debut late this season. He spent a good amount of time watching in September, so he's hoping to make up for some lost at-bats while with the Scorpions, all while trying to perhaps prepare for a full-time job in the bigs in 2010.

"The decision for that is ultimately not my decision. I think I can help my decision with the way I play," said Posey. It's going to come down to how I perform and that's the way it should be."

"It was a good taste to see how guys go about their business," the prospect said of his time in San Francisco. "I'm excited to try and improve in the [Arizona Fall League]. There's great competition out here, so I'm sure it'll be a good thing.

"It's my job to prepare myself and try to become the best player I can."

As Posey works on his all-around game with perhaps the chance to be the Giants' Opening Day catcher next year, he'll get an opportunity to face first-round arms other than Strasburg and Storen. Mike Minor, taken by the Braves at No. 7 overall, will pitch for the Peoria Saguaros, making the Opening Day start on Tuesday against the Scorpions. He'll be joined on the roster by Mike Leake (No. 8, Cincinnati). They'll have top Braves prospect Jason Heyward leading their offense.

"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."

There are a couple of new wrinkles for the Arizona Fall League this season. The first is the presence of five Japanese pitchers, marking the first time non-MLB affiliated players will participate alongside of Major League prospects. Two pitchers -- Hiroshi Katayama and Toshiyuki Yanuki -- will pitch for the Desert Dogs. Three others -- Toru Murata, Ken Nishimura and Takanobu Tsujiuchi -- are on Scottsdale's roster.

The Fall League has long been a testing ground not only for players, but for new rules, procedures and, this year, equipment. The new Rawlings S100 helmet, designed to help protect hitters from head injuries.

"If it's about the safety of the players, then I'm all for it," said Reds prospect Yonder Alonso, who will suit up in the AFL as a member of the Peoria Saguaros. "Something like this could make us all a little bit better, because we're not going to be up there thinking about the dangers of getting hit by a pitch."

That could make for an even more interesting Arizona Fall League, a circuit already known for its friendliness toward hitters. It might be a developmental league, but once these professionals are between the lines, there's no question that while they'll be working on things, they'll want to win.

"That means more pressure, so that's good," said Storen, who will be available to come out of the Desert Dogs bullpen on Wednesday. "As relaxed as it is, we're going to want to win, especially to keep the tradition going. That's so impressive, with all those top guys on every team, to have won five in a row. It'd be even better to come out with six in a row, so hopefully that happens."

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