SARASOTA, Fla. -- The Arizona Fall League has become a showcase of baseball's best and brightest, and Orioles bench coach John Russell -- who had two separate stints managing in the AFL -- looks back at that time fondly.
"To me, it was a great opportunity to be around other organizations and see and talk to other players, other staff people, what different ways of development there were," said Russell, who was part of the 2002 Phoenix Desert Dogs and the '07 Peoria Saguaros rosters. "I thought that was really interesting.
"You get to see their view of what their aspirations are in baseball and how they want to go about it. And the players that you bring from your organization. It was a great time for a manager. It was a great time for the players, we had a blast. Good competition. Guys really got after it, because they knew it was a big stepping stone for them."
Russell, who went as part of the Twins' organization in 2002 and as the Phillies' Triple-A manager in '07, said there were a lot of lengthy conversations in both organizations about which players to send to the AFL. The Orioles have several notable AFL alums, including catcher Matt Wieters and right fielder Nick Markakis. Top position-player prospect Jonathan Schoop and Henry Urrutia were among the crop the O's sent this past fall.
"You knew going out there [players were] going to face some better competition and some of the other organizations' better prospects," said Russell, whose players included Brandon Phillips, Justin Morneau and Brett Gardner.
"I always thought that was interesting that you looked at your players and would say, 'I really want this guy to go, [but] I don't know if he's ready for that.' But if he did do well, it was kind of a springboard for them. And you see that happening with guys who go to the Fall League -- the next year they go into spring and it's like they're a different person. So it's very beneficial for that, too."
The AFL has grown in popularity since its inception, with the championship game now televised on MLB Network. Orioles Double-A manager Gary Kendall managed the Surprise Saguaros to the title this past fall, with players coming from Baltimore, Boston, Milwaukee, Texas and the Cubs.
"I think the main thing is the competitiveness," Russell said of what stood out to him the most of managing in the AFL. "You would think these guys have played a full season, they go down there, top prospects most of them, just the way they got after it.
"I can't really pinpoint one game or guy, because there's so many of them. What I really liked about them is they got after it. It wasn't like, 'Hey, this is the end of the season, it's kind of like winter ball. I'm just going to go through the motions.' It was competitive. You had scouts in the stands every day. You had general managers watch their own guys. You had Major League managers coming in to watch their own guys. There was a lot of things to play for."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli.