This story was originally published on our sister site, TigsTown.com
Skelton joined the Tigers as a small-framed catcher out of West Covina High School, after being selected in the 14th round of the 2004 draft. James' first pro experience came as a member of the GCL Tigers, where he promptly received a rude awakening as to what the minor leagues were all about. Skelton posted a .140/.260/.163 line in 2004, demonstrating little ability to hit for average, or power. His defensive skills translated reasonably well, and the Tigers opted to stick with him for another year, bringing him along slowly.
A repeat tour through the GCL brought only slightly better results, but showed some signs that progress was being made. Skelton's .182/.413/.212 line still looks unimpressive, but his ability to command the strike zone and walk more than he struck out was certainly a positive trend in 2005.
The Tigers pushed him to Oneonta for the 2006 season, and their patience paid off as Skelton posted a promising .300/.397/.400 mark in a tough environment for hitters. Again, he demonstrated his eye at the plate, walking nearly as much as he struck out. Moving onto West Michigan for the 2007 season, there were hopes that he could continue to take small steps forward. He exceeded those thoughts in a huge way, ranking fifth in the Midwest League in hitting (.309), second in on-base percentage (.402), and third in on-base plus slugging (.850). He was named TigsTown's West Michigan Player of the Month after an outstanding June, and though he wore down as the season dragged on, his progress was an excellent surprise.
The positive trends continued at Lakeland in 2008, as Skelton maintained his keen batting eye, and displayed an even better feel for hitting. Despite playing the final weeks of the season at Double-A, James tied for third in the Florida State League in walks (64), while hitting at a .305 clip for the season. Though his numbers dipped upon promotion to Erie, Skelton still showed the same offensive skills. The Tigers wanted to see more, and they assigned James to Hawaii Winter Baseball for some additional game action. At risk of sounding like a broken record, James again showed an ability to make contact and work counts, posting a .281/.405/.391 line for West Oahu in 21 games.
Offensively, Skelton gains attention for his ability to work counts and control the strike zone. He has a brilliant eye at the plate, and his ability to recognize pitches has improved as well. He has above-average hand-eye coordination that helps his hit tool rate as at least average, and at times a tick above. As his numbers suggest, Skelton should hit for solid average and pick up some walks at just about any level of baseball.
His power lags significantly behind, and is often nearly non-existent. He lacks strength and the loft in his swing necessary to drive the ball to the gaps, leaving him as essentially a singles hitter. His above-average speed helps him leg out additional hits, and is an asset on the bases.
Behind the dish, James offers a very strong arm, rating between above-average and plus. His transfer is good and his footwork has continued to improve through diligent work on his craft. James still struggles to block balls routinely, and his receiving skills still require improvement. He is a quiet player but he works well with his pitchers and is beginning to call a pretty good game.
Overall, Skelton doesn't really project as an everyday player. His bat has some intriguing aspects, and he's got enough defensively to contribute back there, but he profiles more as a solid reserve catcher at the big league level. There is a chance he could be in line for a position switch if teams don't like his profile behind the plate, and second base or the outfield may be where he ends up.
SLG% A+ Lakeland 212 .307 8 3 23 50 64 .468 .406 AA Erie 85 .294 2 2 11 23 19 .425 .388
Skelton's had problems wearing down at the end of seasons, though he showed improvement in this area in 2008. He's been protected, and not required to carry a full catching load to date, so his durability really hasn't been tested at great length. There remain questions about his small stature, and until he shows stamina at the highest levels, the questions will likely persist.
Selected by the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft this week, Skelton will have to stick on the 25-man roster for the entire season in Arizona, or risk being exposed to waivers and possibly offered back to the Tigers. There are some strong questions about his readiness for the big leagues, so he is going to be in for a stiff test this spring and early in the season if he makes the Opening Day roster.
Don't be shocked if Arizona tries him at other positions in the spring in order to increase his versatility and give them additional mechanisms for keeping him on the big league roster. He's got the quickness, intelligence, and work ethic to handle several other positions, and he could craft himself into a unique type of utility player with an ability to get on base, if given the right opportunities.
Mark Anderson is TigsTown's Managing Editor and feature Minor League writer. He can be reached at Mark@TigsTown.com.