SCOTTSDALE -- The Arizona Fall League has a reputation, and a deserving one, of being a finishing school for prospects. This is the place talented Minor Leaguers go to prepare themselves properly for life in the big leagues.
For many players, though, it goes beyond being a developmental league. While trying to improve certain skills is still important, a large group uses the AFL as a major audition -- not only for the players' parent organizations, but for the other 29 that scout the Fall League daily.
These players are the ones who are up for consideration for a 40-man roster spot or will be eligible for selection in the Rule 5 Draft next month. According to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, players must be added to the roster after a certain amount of time (four years for those who signed when they were 19 or older; five years for players who signed when they were 18 and younger) or be exposed for the Rule 5 Draft. Teams must make final decisions on rosters by Friday at midnight ET.
Those who played in the Fall League that are affected by that rule run the gamut from former first-rounders to late-round senior signs, from everyday players to pitchers. Close to 70 are waiting to hear their roster fate. Jake Diekman and Tyson Gillies, for example, were added to the Phillies' roster.
All are hoping to earn that roster spot, but they also know they had the chance to make an impression on other teams who might take a shot with a Rule 5 selection next month.
When Josh Vitters and Kevin Ahrens were coming out of high school in 2007, they were two of the more highly touted prep infielders in their class. Vitters, from Southern California, went No. 3 overall to the Cubs. Ahrens, out of the Texas high school ranks, went No. 16 to Toronto. Both undoubtedly thought the climb up the ladder would be a little smoother.
"It's a big week here," said Vitters, the Cubs' third-base prospect who started to show some signs of life in Double-A in 2011 and hit .360/.383/.540 in the AFL. "I think [it was great] coming here to show what I can do one last time to give them a good idea and hopefully win a spot up there. I'm just hoping I stay with my team. That's what I'm looking forward to."
"Coming out here has been a really good opportunity for me to sell myself to other teams," said Ahrens, who spent 2011 in the Class A Advanced Florida State League and hit .269/.330/.387 this fall. "There's not just one team out there, there's 29 other teams.
"I've talked to a couple of guys about [the Rule 5 Draft], trying to get my info on it. I'm not trying to really look at it. When I'm on the field, I'm not thinking about it. I'm just playing my game and whatever happens, happens."
For the Marlins' Kevin Mattison, a nominee for the AFL's Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award, this is nothing new. As a senior sign out of UNC-Asheville in the 2008 Draft (28th round), he's had to prove himself at every level. Needing to do it again to earn a roster spot is par for the course for the hard-nosed outfielder.
Mattison responded with a tremendous AFL campaign, finishing ninth in the league with a .349 average and seventh in OPS (1.057). He also finished tied for third with nine stolen bases. He's done everything he can to earn a spot, keeping the pressure of it out of his head while he was helping Surprise to make it to the championship game on Saturday.
"I try not to think about it at the park," Mattison said. "It definitely runs through my mind at home when I have nothing to do in my apartment. I think about it. I can only control what I can control. I try to come out here, have a good season and have fun with it. I've come out on top so far."
Whether coming out on top means he gets that coveted 40-man roster spot will be determined Friday night. Coming out on top could also mean a shot at the big leagues via the Rule 5 Draft on Dec. 8. A large percentage of these players will simply return back to the Minor Leagues with their original organizations, going back to the grind in 2012, trying to reach that ultimate goal.
"I've seen a couple of guys from my Draft class make it to the big leagues," Ahrens said. "I'm just trying to go the path I'm supposed to follow. It's been pretty tough so far, but I feel it's been a big learning experience for me. Coming out here has been a big help to see where I am compared to other people.
"It's definitely harder than I thought coming out of high school. This has been a huge step for me, growing-wise and learning the game. I'm going to make it one day, it's just a matter of time."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.