You’ve probably read Joe Sheehan’s nifty explanations of his AL and NL All-Star ballots. In summary, Joe’s theory is that you don’t fritter away an All-Star spot on a player who’s had a hot two months preceded by season upon season of mediocrity. Instead, you give the spot to a proven, top-tier performer who, ideally, is also enjoying a strong first half. I couldn’t agree more with that philosophy.

Today, I’m going to begin extending Joe’s balloting hermeneutics to the minor leagues. By that I mean I’m going to name my personal level-by-level minor league All-Stars. In the very low minors, where I’m beginning this series, it’s difficult to distinguish fluke performance from genuine skills growth–the track record either isn’t substantial or isn’t there at all. It’s when I get to the upper levels of the minors that I’ll get to wield my variant of Joe’s philosophy. By way of example, I’m not going to hand out any spots to the Hiram Bocachicas of the world. Irrespective of his merits, he’s not a highly valuable prospect by any standard. What I’m going to do is give spots to those who are not only performing well in the early months of the 2004 season, but also are doing so in tandem with legitimate prospect status.

As I said, this isn’t so much a concern with today’s piece–the Low-A All-Stars, culled from the Midwest and South Atlantic Leagues (the lowest of the full-season circuits). But once the Double- and Triple-A teams come up, there’ll be a more thorough separating of wheat and chaff.

Without further hemming and hawing, here’s my Low-A All-Star ballot:

  • C – Daric Barton, Cardinals (Midwest League), Age: 18

    Barton, the Cards’ top overall pick of last year’s draft, garnered notice for the impressive plate discipline he displayed last season in the rookie-level Appy League. He’s late to the Midwest League this year because he spent the early part of the season in extended spring training recovering from a minor injury. If I were a stickler about ample playing time, I’d leave him off this list, but I’ll leave it to someone else to ignore these numbers: 114 plate appearances, .415/.538/.734…and the Midwest League is playing very tough on hitters this year. There’s some question as to whether Barton will stick at catcher, but his bat figures to play well anywhere.

    Runner-Up: David Castillo, A’s (Midwest League), Age: 22

  • 1B – Ian Bladergroen, Mets (Sally League), Age: 21

    The Mets nabbed the infelicitously named Bladergroen as a 44th-round draft-and-follow in 2002. After signing just prior to the 2003 draft, he had a modestly promising showing in the NY-Penn League last year. This season, the wooden bat isn’t posing as much of a challenge for him, to say the least. In 265 plate appearances, the Blade (and you know that’ll be his nickname should he achieve consequence at the highest level) is hitting .332/.401/.604. Perhaps most encouraging is the hefty .272 ISO gleaned from that line.

    Runner-Up: Brian Dopirak, Cubs (Midwest League), Age: 20

  • 2B – Howie Kendrick, Angels (Midwest League), Age: 20

    Runner-up Roberts is having the better season from a numbers standpoint, but Kendrick gets the nod by dint of his being so much younger. The Halos drafted Kendrick as a Florida prepster in the 10th round of the 2002 draft. You might look at his current line of .355/.386/.512, sense the relative paucity of peripheral skills and assume it’s a fluke or park-driven performance built around batting average. Not so. Kendrick entered 2004 as a career .348 hitter. To be sure, his walk rates and raw power indicators leave something to be desired, but his ability to hit for average, thus far, is a proven one. Tell me again why the Angels fired erstwhile scouting director Donny Rowland, the man responsible for signing Kendrick, Casey Kotchman, Dallas McPherson, Jeff Mathis, Ervin Santana and Alberto Callaspo?

    Runner-Up: Ryan Roberts, Blue Jays (Sally League), Age: 23

  • 3B – Ian Stewart, Rockies (Sally League), Age: 19

    This is probably the closest call of any position, but Stewart gets the narrow nod over Duncan because of ceiling and superior performance in 2003. Stewart, arguably the best non-Delmon Young high school hitter available in last year’s draft, hit .317/.401/.558 in the Pioneer League last season, and this year he’s back at it in the Sally League: .300/.378/.580. Asheville is indeed a hitter’s haven, but the increased walk rate and .280 ISO aren’t easily explained away by park effects. He has excellent bat speed, covers the whole plate and uses all fields. Scouts love him, and the performance record is exceptional.

    Runner-Up: Eric Duncan, Yankees (Midwest League), Age: 19

  • SS – Ian Kinsler, Rangers (Midwest League), Age: 21

    Before his recent promotion to Double-A, Kinsler led all Midwest League qualifiers with a .400 EqA, and once you see his indecent batting line of .402/.465/.692 you’ll know why. After being drafted last year as a 17th-round pick out of the University of Missouri, Kinsler put up passable numbers in the Northwest League, but certainly nothing special for a college-trained hitter in short-season ball. This year, however, has obviously been a different story. So good was his performance that the Rangers skipped him over the Cal League entirely.

    Runner-Up: Brandon Wood, Angels (Midwest League), Age: 19

  • OF – Ryan Goleski, Indians (Midwest League), Age: 22

    Goleski, a sixth-rounder last year out of Eastern Michigan, had a decent showing in the NY-Penn League last season, but he’s made strides this year. Lake County in its first season played as a notable pitcher’s park, but that hasn’t stopped Goleski from hitting .303/.370/.562 in his first taste of full-season ball. He needs to improve his plate discipline (24 unintentional walks this season in 284 plate appearances), but the raw power numbers are quite strong: Goleski’s on pace for almost 35 homers and 75 extra-base hits.

  • OF – Brandon Moss, Red Sox (Sally League), Age: 20

    Moss, an eighth-rounder in ’02, has been, to be frank, patently unimpressive prior the current season. In 2002 and 2003, Moss combined for a grisly batting line of .226/.291/.384. While there’s no explaining that away entirely, his struggles aren’t thoroughly damning for a prep talent making the leap to using a wooden bat for the first time. This season, Moss’ outlook has improved dramatically. Despite being generally younger than his Sally League peer group, Moss is batting .347/.407/.512. I’m not entirely at ease with this selection given his modest peripheral skills and weak record of performance heretofore, but that he ranks fifth in EqA in the Sally League as a 20-year-old earns the benefit of the doubt. I’ll certainly want to see more raw power and continued strong numbers before I call him a prospect.

  • OF – Matt Esquivel, Braves (Sally League), Age: 21

    The Braves drafted Esquivel in the fifth round of the 2001 draft, and he has impressive potential. Esquivel, while solidly built, has nice range in center to go with a burgeoning power stroke. He slugged .514 last season, although he was repeating the rookie-level Appy League. Still, Danville plays as a reasonably tough park for hitters. This year, he’s been in the Sally League, and he’s put up a line of .304/.372/.545. The ballpark in Rome has only been around one season, but it did play as a run-suppressing environment last year. That makes Esquivel’s ISO of .241 all the more impressive. He has the glove to remain in center and the power to make him a commodity at an up-the-middle position.

    Runner-Up: Kevin Collins, Cubs (Midwest League), Age: 23

    Runner-Up: Jordan Pickens, Padres (Midwest League), Age: 23

  • SP1 – Yusmeiro Petit, Mets (Sally League), Age: 19

    Petit, signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela in 2001, doesn’t have overwhelming stuff, but the results thus far have been unassailable. He throws a high-80s fastball, change and curve. Petit can throw all three offerings for strikes and has the ability to go to his complementary pitches in fastball counts. He annihilated the rookie-level Appy League last season and was also dominant in a 12-inning stop in the NY-Penn League.

    This season, the Sally League has provided no more of a test for him. In 71.1 innings, he’s fanned 101, walked only 20 (which comes to a K/BB ratio of better than 5.0) and given up only 42 hits. Coming into this season, he’d coughed up only three homers in 130 innings as a pro, but this year he’s more than doubled that rate. Still, it’s apparent that he’s not challenged in the least by his peer group of hitters. He’ll be in the FSL soon.

  • SP2 – Clint Everts, Expos (Sally League), Age: 19

    The fifth overall pick of the 2002 draft and a high school teammate of the Mets’ Scott Kazmir, Everts sports an average fastball but one of the best curves in the minors. As well, his change is already a plus pitch. He has polished mechanics and a poised approach on the mound. Everts struggled with his control last season in the NY-Penn League and during a 26-inning stint in the Sally League. However, some theorized it was because the break on his curve was so drastic that it fooled even the umpires. The Expos have encouraged him to rely less on his curve so that he might cultivate a better fastball. Everts figures to add some speed to his heater once he fills out his thin frame. Even so, he’s been tremendous this season: 64 innings, 72 strikeouts, 13 walks, 47 hits, 2.95 R/G, three homers. Given that he spent some time at Savannah last season, he figures to be promoted before long.

    Runner-Up: John Danks, Rangers (Midwest League), Age: 19

Next week, I’ll cough up my High-A All-Star team.