To say that Tony Sanchez, the Pirates' top selection -- and the No. 4 overall pick -- in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft has been itching to get back on the field would be a huge understatement. So when the catching prospect found out that he was headed to the Arizona Fall League, he was beyond ecstatic.
Sanchez is one of 30 former first-round Draft picks to be found on the six AFL rosters, announced officially on Monday, with the elite finishing school set to embark on its 19th season on Oct. 12. It will be Sanchez's first game action since his jaw was broken by a high-and-inside pitch on June 22.
"It's going to be another wonderful opportunity," said Sanchez, who required surgery and had his jaw wired shut following the hit-by-pitch. "I try to compare it to the Cape [Cod League]. It's more competitive out there now, but I'm feeling the same way as when I found out I was going to play in the Cape. You're looking forward to playing against the best guys in the country."
Sanchez is joined by Draft classmate Dustin Ackley, whom the Mariners selected No. 2 overall. Ackley made his unofficial professional debut in the AFL a year ago, hitting .313 over 73 at-bats. He's since made the transition to second base and rose to Triple-A in his first full season. Perhaps his playing this fall will help him put the final touches on his Minor League career.
That certainly wouldn't be surprising, considering the success rate the AFL has had in churning out Major Leaguers. Just from last year's rosters alone, a virtual all-rookie team has emerged at the big league level.
"As we approach our 19th season, the Arizona Fall League is proud of its continuing contributions to the development of the sport's most outstanding young players," director Steve Cobb said. "Just nine months ago, players like Ike Davis, Jason Heyward, Chris Heisey, Mike Leake, Buster Posey, Mike Stanton, Drew Storen, Stephen Strasburg, Jose Tabata and many others were polishing their skills in Arizona for the six weeks prior to Thanksgiving, and just months before they became household names to baseball fans across America."
It's the kind of trajectory that all of this year's crop of AFL participants will hope to follow. Many have the expectations of being a top Draft pick or a Top 50 prospect (five from MLB.com's 2010 list are attending) heaped on their shoulders, so the extra time in Arizona could help them fulfill that massive potential.
"When I found out, I was very excited," said Royals prospect Eric Hosmer, the third overall pick of the 2008 Draft. "It's an elite league. Just look at all the names that are in the big leagues this year from last year's fall league. I've been in Arizona for instructs the last two years and got to watch some games. I can't wait for that to start up."
After officially starting on Oct. 12, the league runs until the championship game on Nov. 20. In between will be the Rising Stars Game -- where the best of the best will convene -- on Nov. 6.
There will be more of an international flavor to the AFL in 2010, with a record number of foreign-born players -- 27 -- slated to participate. That group includes Canadian Brett Lawrie and Cuban Jose Iglesias, two of the quintet of Top 50 players who will be in Arizona. Lawrie, a Brewers prospect, was No. 26 on the preseason list. Boston's Iglesias was at No. 45, largely because of his outstanding showing in last year's fall league. They are joined by Ackley (No. 15), A's outfielder Michael Taylor (35) and Royals left-hander Mike Montgomery (43).
"Anyone who's in that league, they're obviously one of the top players in the Minor Leagues and in their systems," said Hosmer, who's hit a combined .341/.407/.571 across two levels this season. "It'll be tough, but it'll be a good experience at the same time. Continuing to face Double- and Triple-A-type pitching never hurts."
Sanchez not only will get to face those arms, he'll have the opportunity to catch them. The Boston College product likely would have gotten the chance to work with Double-A pitchers had he not been lost for the season, and now he'll have the chance to soak in some of that experience.
"Hopefully I'll get another 150 at-bats out there -- that'll help make up for some of the lost ground," said Sanchez, who had just 207 at-bats when he was hurt. "You're always going to get better when you're facing really good stuff, and that's what the AFL will offer. It will help your approach.
"As far as catching goes, I'll go out there and catch guys who have more confidence in their stuff and more of a plan. It'll be a question of getting to know them, and that will come with the more time I get with them. It will help me with my pitch calling, all against more quality hitters. I hope to have a good fall out there and do the best I can."
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.