BRADENTON, Fla. -- For Andrew McCutchen, it was one of his final steps toward the Major Leagues. For Gerrit Cole, it was the very first step.
And both cornerstones of the 2014 Pirates reflect fondly on their experience in the Arizona Fall League.
McCutchen, the Bucs' No. 1 Draft choice in 2005, already had 327 Minor League games under his belt when he was assigned to the 2007 Phoenix Desert Dogs.
"They told me to go out there and play, and that's what I did," McCutchen said. "I got in some work, doing what I was supposed to do. And it was a lot of fun, really one of the first times I felt a winning vibe. We had a really good team, and ended up winning the whole thing."
Cole, the No. 1 overall choice in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft in June, did not sign his Pirates contract until mid-August, too late on the Minor League calendar to report to a team in the club's system. Thus he was green when he joined the 2011 Mesa Solar Sox.
"It was my first pro ball experience, and I got to face some good hitters," Cole said. "[Mike] Trout, [Bryce] Harper, a handful of other top guys. I enjoyed facing guys like that in that environment, which was pretty relaxed. I mean, good players, but it is offseason baseball, so it was more relaxed."
Despite experiencing the AFL at different stages of their careers, McCutchen and Cole both regard it as helping prepare them for where they are now.
"For someone starting out as a pro, it didn't overwhelm me at all," said Cole, whose amateur career had ended in the same environs in late May, in a start for UCLA against Arizona State. "I really got an idea of what I needed to get better at. I hammered some things out, kept trying to nail some things in my delivery.
"Being able to see how it plays with big league-caliber hitters was very helpful."
On the approximate two-year anniversary of his first pro start for Mesa, Cole was beating the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 2 of the 2013 National League Division Series -- adding that victory to the 10 he won during his rookie half-season.
"Honestly, it was a lot of fun. A good time," McCutchen said. "I really enjoyed playing against the elite, then going out and doing stuff with your teammates. It was really low-key, with not really that many people coming to the games.
"Basically, it was like Rookie ball. You just go and play, with wins and losses not taken that seriously. So a lot of guys did have that laid-back mentality, but at the same time, everybody could play."
A few years after that experience, McCutchen would add to the AFL's heritage by becoming its latest graduate to earn MVP honors, being named the 2013 NL MVP Award winner.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.