For most of these young players, the AFL offers the opportunity to get a few more innings or at-bats under the belt against top competition. But for lefty Donnie Veal, the objective is a bit more defined.
Veal endured a trying 2009 season, mainly due to the unusual spot of being a Rule 5 Draft pick stuck in the Majors. Knowing they would risk losing Veal if they took him off the 25-man roster at any point, the Pirates hid him in the bullpen all season.
Veal made only six appearances before the All-Star break and was twice put on the disabled list so the Pirates could take advantage of sending him to the Minors for rehab work. Veal's workload increased as the season wound down, largely because he began cutting down on the number of walks issued, which, in turn, made him much more effective.
"It's been a long year," Veal said as the season came to an end. "[There was] a lot of sitting and learning. But I think it has been worth it just to soak up as much information as possible and just learn about how to go about being a big leaguer every day. It's frustrating at first, but looking back on it, I get it now."
Now that Veal made it through the '09 season primarily as a spectator, the Pirates have large plans for the left-hander. Still only 25 years old, Veal is going to transition back into a starting role, beginning with his time in the AFL.
Pitching as a starter in Arizona will allow Veal to accrue some of the innings he missed while sitting on the bench in Pittsburgh. It will also prepare the left-hander for what is to come next season.
"Your best arms you want to develop as starters because there is so much more value in starting pitching than there is in bullpen guys," general manager Neal Huntington said. "If that doesn't work, then we can move him back to a bullpen role and he has a very good chance to be a guy that might be able to pitch late in a game."
With the club's hands no longer tied by Rule 5 stipulations, Veal will begin the 2010 season as a starter in the Minors. Huntington wouldn't commit to whether Veal would begin in the Double-A or Triple-A rotation, though it seems the organization is leaning toward sending him to Triple-A Indianapolis barring any unforeseen setbacks.
Veal will also use the six weeks in Scottsdale to continue the delivery work that he and pitching coach Joe Kerrigan targeted in the second half of the season. As he has with a number of the Pirates' pitchers, Kerrigan altered Veal's delivery motion midseason, the goal being that it would prevent Veal from inadvertently rushing.
The adjustment and some overall maturation played a large part in Veal finishing the season strong. Prior to a shaky appearance on the final day of the regular season, Veal had a string of eight appearances in which he allowed a run in only one of them.
"I think Arizona is going to be a very good stepping stone for him to get the more consistent work and work on his delivery and get a taste of starting," said manager John Russell, who will travel to Arizona later in the month to watch Veal and the other Pirates prospects in action. "You really see some guys blossom there because you are facing some good competition. I think Donnie is definitely going to benefit from it."
Pitchers Danny Moskos and Tony Watson, infielders Brian Friday and Chase D'Arnaud, and outfielder Jose Tabata round out the Bucs' AFL participants. The organization opted not to send another pitcher out West despite having an additional spot to do so. Pirates Minor League field coordinator Jeff Banister will manage the Scorpions.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.