Ask BA

I always enjoy looking at the overall minor league leaders early in the season. Not that performances to this point are statistically significant, but just to see the names that pop up.

Padres third baseman Justin Leone is making a run at the minor league triple crown. His .490 batting average at Triple-A Portland ranks first, his seven homers are tied with Marlins first baseman/catcher Gaby Sanchez for top honors and his 19 RBIs rank second, just two behind Cardinals third baseman Rico Washington.

Fourteen pitching qualifiers have spotless 0.00 ERAs, and the best prospects in that group are all lefthanders: Chuck Lofgren (Indians), Troy Patton (Astros) and Jonathan Sanchez (Giants). Twelve pitchers already have notched three victories, most notably former first-round pick Bill Bray of the Nationals. Top Phillies prospect Cole Hamels and Rockies sleeper Alan Johnson (a nondrafted free agent signed out of Mississippi State last summer) share the strikeout lead at 24.

    The draft is happening right now, and every team in the first round has decided to base their picks solely on talent, not signability or need. Who are the first 20 players off the board?

    Hunter Thornton
    Denton, Texas

There’s little consensus on how the talent lines up right now. North Carolina lefthander Andrew Miller is No. 1 on most draft boards, but after that, opinion quickly diverges. Here’s how I’d stack up the top 20 prospects as of this moment:

1. Andrew Miller, lhp, North Carolina
Would have been a first-rounder out of high school had he been signable
2. Brandon Morrow, rhp, California
Starting to harness his upper-90s heat and flashing good secondary stuff
3. Tim Lincecum, rhp, Washington
Has blown away college hitters since last summer in Cape Cod
4. Brad Lincoln, rhp, Houston
Should be even more effective on the mound once he gives up hitting
5. Evan Longoria, 3b, Long Beach State
The best position player available, but more of a solid guy than a superstar
6. Drew Stubbs, of, Texas
Scouts love his tools but still have questions about how he’ll hit in the majors
7. Matt LaPorta, 1b, Florida
Turning on the power after being slowed by an oblique strain
8. Clayton Kershaw, lhp, Highland Park HS (Dallas)
Top high school prospect after entering year as projected second- or third-rounder
9. Joba Chamberlain, rhp, Nebraska
Regaining his form after early-season bout with triceps tendinitis
10. Kyle Drabek, rhp, The Woodlands (Texas) HS
Could be first prep middle infielder taken’"if he weren’t so talented on the mound
11. Max Scherzer, rhp, Missouri
Can’t rank him higher until he bounces back from shoulder tendinitis
12. Ian Kennedy, rhp, Southern California
Has lost a little off an already average fastball, but he knows how to pitch
13. Kyle McCulloch, rhp, Texas
Like the Longhorns and Stubbs, getting it going after a slow start
14. Wes Hodges, 3b, Georgia Tech
One of only a handful of position players with a chance to go in the top half of the first round
15. Daniel Bard, rhp, North Carolina
Would move up if he showed a more consistent breaking ball and success
16. Chris Tillman, rhp, Fountain Valley (Calif.) HS
Classic high school projectable pitcher at 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds
17. Brett Sinkbeil, rhp, Missouri State
Doesn’t get Scherzer’s hype, but he has been the top pitcher in Missouri this spring
18. Chris Marrero, 3b, Monsignor Pace HS (Opa Locka, Fla.)
Best high school position player has impressive tools but hasn’t performed up to expectations
19. Justin Masterson, rhp, San Diego State
The breakout player in the Cape Cod League summer starts for the Aztecs but projects as a reliever
20. Mark Melancon, rhp, Arizona
Might be the next college reliever to reach the majors a few months after signing

For more draft news, check out our updated High School Top 50 Prospects list, which should be posted on our website in the next day or two.

    I find it surprising that so many people make a fuss about lefthander Adam Loewen, while few seem to consider Hayden Penn the superior Orioles prospect. Penn had a better year last year, at a higher level, and he’s six months younger than Loewen. What am I missing? Who projects to be better in the long term?

    Gregory Ward

There’s not a huge difference in how the two are perceived. We ranked Loewen No. 2 and Penn No. 3 on our Orioles Top 10 Prospects list. On our Top 100 Prospects list, Loewen checked in at No. 45 and Penn at No. 81, and that separation may be seen as greater than we intend it to be.

Loewen gets the edge in our eyes because, in no particular order, he’s lefthanded, throws on more of a downward plane, has more life on his fastball and owns a better curveball. But you could make a case for Penn on the basis that he has progressed more rapidly, throws more strikes and is more polished, and his stuff is nothing to sneeze at. Both guys work regularly in the low 90s, and while Penn doesn’t have Loewen’s curveball, he has a better changeup.

Loewen opened 2006 by turning in the best outing of his pro career: 8 IP, 1 H, 0 BB, 12 K in his Double-A debut. But the inconsistency that has dogged him came up again when he got knocked around in each of his next two starts. Penn has yet to pitch this year, as the Orioles have opted to keep him in extended spring training after shoulder soreness prevented him from building up his arm strength in big league camp.

In terms of pure projection, Loewen has the brighter future. If it all comes together, he could be a No. 1 starter. Penn’s ceiling is more of a No. 2, though he’s a safer bet to reach his ceiling than Loewen.

    I’m not sure I know the best way to ask this, but hopefully you understand and can help me with this question. With the Marlins playing Miguel Olivo more than Josh Willingham behind the dish, it brings this to mind: How much does the quality of a catcher’s defensive skills and game-calling ability have to do with how the pitchers produce? If they played Willingham, would the pitchers be worse off?

    Steve Haws
    Las Vegas

This has been a matter of debate in recent years. Teams value defense, leadership and game-calling acumen from catchers, though I believe Baseball Prospectus did a study a few years ago where they found little statistical evidence that any big league backstops had a consistent, measurable effect on their team’s ERA.

In any case, this really isn’t the issue in Olivo vs. Willingham. There shouldn’t be any question that Willingham can hit enough to be a productive big leaguer. But scouts who have seen him in Triple-A and the majors don’t think he’s capable of catching on a regular basis.

Willingham has had knee problems in the past, and they’d only be exacerbated if he were a regular catcher. He works hard, but he has caught just 192 games as a pro and doesn’t have much time to learn the nuances of the position at age 27. His catch-and-throw skills are just adequate, and he threw out only 14 percent of basestealers in Triple-A last year. Furthermore, his bat will be more productive if he avoids the grind of catching.

What the Marlins are doing makes sense. Willingham will be at his best and healthiest as a regular left fielder or first baseman, and he has enough bat to play there. His ability to serve as a backup catcher enhances his value. The defensive edge Olivo offers behind the plate would be negated by Willingham’s offensive superiority, but his ability to hold up behind the plate is questionable.

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