- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ryan Church had been a top prospect in the Montreal Expos’ farm system for four years before arriving in Mesa, Ariz., in October 2003 for the next chapter in his professional baseball life.

Church had no idea what to expect out of the Arizona Fall League, but it didn’t take the young outfielder much time to realize he was about to face a challenge unlike any other he had encountered on a baseball diamond. A star all his life, he suddenly realized he was just another player.

Among the 210 players participating that fall in the desert were future studs Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, George Sherrill, Grady Sizemore, Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Adam Wainwright, Josh Willingham, David Wright and Delmon Young. Just to name a few.

“In the minor leagues, on a given team you might have one legitimate prospect and then a bunch of complementary guys,” Church said. “But there, it’s all the legit guys. These are the ones they feel have what it takes to get to the majors. Everyone I’m playing against now up here I was with down there.”

Church, now with the Atlanta Braves, learned what most everyone learns upon passing through the desert each fall: Outside of the big leagues, there may not be a better collection of baseball talent in the world.

The Arizona Fall League began its 18th season Tuesday, allowing another crop of top prospects - including Washington Nationals No. 1 pick Stephen Strasburg - to add their names to the long list of on-the-cusp stars who have used the six-week developmental league to catapult to the majors.

Strasburg is slated to make his debut Friday, pitching for the Phoenix Desert Dogs against the Scottsdale Scorpions, and the right-hander will be one of the most-hyped prospects in AFL history.

“There is a buzz here about him,” said Steve Cobb, the league’s executive director. “I think it’s probably the most anticipated AFL in some time.”

Strasburg, though, won’t be alone in drawing the gaze of scouts and hardcore baseball fans alike. Five of the top-10 picks from this summer’s draft are slated to participate, as is Baseball America minor league player of the year Jason Heyward.

“This is the place you want to be,” Cobb said. “If you’re in the minor leagues, this is the place you want to be because you get a chance to really play against some of the best competition from all the organizations.”

It wasn’t always like this. Owned by Major League Baseball, the AFL began play in 1992 as an alternative to the highly popular and successful Latin American winter leagues, but few predicted it would blossom into the breeding ground it has become today.

Along the way, players and front-office officials from every big league organization came to realize the AFL’s biggest selling points. It offers a chance to condense some of the best Class AA and Class AAA prospects in baseball into one league. It brings those players together into an easily accessible - and top-notch - locale: five spring training ballparks spread around the Phoenix metropolitan area. And though it offers a high level of competition, it also offers a controlled environment in which starting pitchers aren’t allowed to go more than five innings at a time and all players are monitored diligently by major league-caliber coaching and training staffs.

The AFL has established itself as the premier offseason developmental league, with young players and their agents begging to be among the seven prospects selected from each organization.

The league’s success rate is unquestioned. About 60 percent of the nearly 3,000 players who have come through the AFL in the past 17 years have reached the major leagues. The AFL has produced 141 All-Stars, 18 rookies of the year, 40 Silver Sluggers, 33 Gold Glove Award winners, eight NL or AL batting champions, six MVPs, three Cy Young Award winners and three World Series MVPs.

“That doesn’t mean if a player comes here he’s going to make it to the major leagues,” said Cobb, who has been with the AFL since its first season. “But their chances are certainly enhanced here, and it certainly puts them on a potential major league track.”

Few league alums have a negative thing to say about their experiences.

“You always heard about certain guys from different organizations, so to actually get to play against them, guys who are on the brink of making it, it was kind of neat,” said Nationals outfielder Justin Maxwell (Peoria Javelinas, 2007). “It was definitely a valuable playing experience.”

“I really didn’t know what to expect or what it would be like,” said Washington third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (Peoria Saguaros, 2005). “But it was definitely a lot of fun and definitely worth it.”

If there is a drawback to the AFL, it is the utter lack of attention it gets from the baseball-viewing public. Games are legendary for their microscopic crowds, often no more than 50 people filing into 12,000-seat ballparks - most of them scouts or other talent evaluators.

“It’s not the most electric atmosphere,” Zimmerman said.

League officials hope Strasburg’s participation could produce some larger-than-normal crowds, but it has never been the AFL’s mission to sell tickets. This is a league for players, not for fans.

And few leagues can offer top players from around the country an opportunity to refine their games in this kind of environment, often the final step toward a successful career in the only baseball league that really counts.

“It’s not a lot of flash. There’s not a lot of bells and whistles going off,” Cobb said. “But these guys want to win. And they want to perform well here because they know who’s in the stands and what this could mean for them.”

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