This time of year, while the baseball world turns its attention to crowning a new champion, the future is being built in the desert.
For the past two decades, the Arizona Fall League has served as a finishing school for the game's best prospects. As the AFL kicks off its 20th anniversary season on Tuesday, it's clear that this year will be no different.
A total of 23 players currently on MLB.com's Top 100 Prospect list are on AFL rosters, led by No. 10 overall prospect Nick Castellanos of the Tigers, Minor League single-season stolen-base record holder Billy Hamilton of the Reds, Anthony Rendon of the Nationals and the Marlins' Christian Yelich, all of whom are in the top 30. All of them will be in action Tuesday when the Phoenix Desert Dogs host the Scottsdale Scorpions and the Peoria Javelinas host the Surprise Saguaros at 12:35 p.m. local time (3:35 p.m. ET). The Mesa Solar Sox visit the Salt River Rafters Tuesday evening at 6:35 p.m. (9:35 p.m. ET). The Rafters are the defending AFL champions, with hopes of making it two in a row in the AFL Championship Game, held on Nov. 17 at Scottsdale Stadium.
"I'm extremely excited," said Castellanos, who will play the outfield for the Mesa Solar Sox this fall. "We have a great group of guys. Everyone's a phenomenal baseball player. The fact I can play with these guys and learn from them is really exciting."
Castellanos is coming off a successful 2012 season, one that saw him hit .320/.365/.451 across two levels, reaching Double-A at age 20 and winning the Futures Game MVP to boot. Like many of the prospects, he's trying to get better in the AFL against good competition, but Castellanos has a more specific task at hand: continue to get acclimated to the outfield.
"I'll be playing a lot of left field here," said Castellanos, a former third baseman who moved to right field in mid-July this season. "I've never played left field before. If I can get a lot of games out there under my belt and get comfortable there, I'd be happy with that."
All Castellanos needs to do is look at the history of the league to understand what's potentially at stake for him and his fellow Fall Leaguers this season. The vast majority of AFL alumni go on to the big leagues, and it's become more and more common to see players use their time in Arizona to springboard to the Majors the following season. Case in point: The 2011 AFL rosters included Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Will Middlebrooks, just to name a few who made huge impacts in the big leagues in 2012.
"Of course, I want it to [do the same for me]," Castellanos said. "How hard I work and my performance will help dictate that. That's why I'm so excited to get these games in, work on playing the outfield, so I do have a shot to break with [the big league] team in Spring Training next year."
The AFL isn't just a haven for players. The league was set up as a way for teams to help their players develop in a controlled setting. In winter leagues held in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, for example, the local teams call the shots in terms of playing time and positioning. Winning is first and foremost there. In the AFL, though success is always a good thing, getting work in against top competition, with each organization controlling how their players are used, is the first objective.
"It's a great venue to get these guys to extend their season," Tampa Bay Rays farm director Mitch Lukevics said. "The type of competitions they'll play against, the stadiums they'll play in -- it's a great combination to get these players in to further their development. They're going to see certain things they haven't seen before, and that really helps the development of the young player."
It's great for scouts as well. It's not often that this much young talent is in one area, at this level of play, for an extended period of time. Scouts love the Fall League for that reason. They get the chance to evaluate top Minor Leaguers for several weeks, not to mention the Futures Game-like Rising Stars Game, held on Nov. 3 at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
"The Arizona Fall League has proven to be a tremendous stage over the years," Kansas City Royals coordinator of pro scouting Gene Watson said. "For scouts and front office members to have the resource to come together and watch the next wave of impactful Major League players compete against each other is an enormous benefit to our industry. It is a great time of the year."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.