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.
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, expectations were relatively low for Skelton; with 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.
Skelton possesses intriguing potential behind the plate, both offensively and defensively. He has a very strong and accurate arm that continues to surprise scouts and observers. He has quick feet and a fast release, all of which combine to make him an excellent defensive prospect. At times, his feet can get too far ahead of him, leading to wild throws, but he's begun to harness this and work within himself. He's got a tough streak behind the plate, and he is beginning to develop into a stronger leader and better game caller.
In relation to other catchers, Skelton's speed would be considered a plus tool. Legitimately, he is an above-average runner who has good instincts on the bases. He recognizes situations to take extra bases and can steal a base if asked to. He is demonstrating his ability to hit for average and get on base at exceptional clips, but his power is still virtually non-existent. He can find the gaps from time to time, and he uses the whole field well, but he'll need to drive the ball more consistently.
The biggest knock on Skelton is his size. At only 5-foot-10, and about 165 or 170 pounds, Skelton is very small; leaving questions abound about his ability to handle the grind of catching everyday. While catching just over 80 games in 2007, Skelton showed a noticeable decline in his numbers as the season wore on, allowing those questions to remain pervasive heading into 2008. There is simply no track record of catchers this small maintaining success at higher levels of the minor leagues, let alone the Major Leagues. There is little doubt Skelton has the potential to contribute offensively, but I am left wondering if the Tigers would be better off utilizing his speed, contact ability, and on-base rates at another position where he can likely play and contribute in more games throughout the season.
Performance Level Team AB AVG 2B HR RBI SO BB OBP% SLG% A
Despite his small frame, Skelton has remained injury free, and while he continues to work diligently toward adding muscle and bulk, he has remained rail thin. He has yet to be challenged with the workload of a full-season, and given the number of catchers vying for time in Lakeland this season, I don't believe he will be truly tested in 2008 either.
Skelton is a near lock for the Lakeland roster, where he will again be forced to hit in a tough offensive environment; though he should be getting used to that by now, as he has seen nothing but such leagues since turning pro. There is little to suggest Skelton will not continue to hit for average and post and impressive OBP, the question will be if he can maintain such a performance throughout the long haul of a full season.
James is the top catching prospect in the system by a wide margin, but that's not saying much. I fear his stock may be a bit over-inflated right now, as there are still enormous questions surrounding his ability to maintain his developmental successes over the long term. It is advisable to view him with a skeptical eye until after he has maintained his ability to perform throughout a full season at Double-A. With several veteran minor league catchers loitering around the upper levels of the system, it will be tough for Skelton to see Erie in 2008, but barring any set back, she should be the top catcher on the 2009 Seawolves squad, and could be knocking on the door to Detroit by the end of that season.
Mark Anderson is TigsTown's Managing Editor and feature Minor League writer. He can be reached at Mark@TigsTown.com.