The Rule 5 Experiment

On December 11, 2008 the Arizona Diamondbacks selected catcher James Skelton from the Detroit Tigers as part of the Rule 5 Draft. Many Diamondbacks fans were left scratching their head wondering first “who is James Skelton” and second, “what in the world do the Diamondbacks need another catcher”. A Rule 5 selection is a dicey proposition at best. Sometimes you strike it rich like in the case of Johan Santana, Josh Hamilton, and the Diamondbacks very own Dan Uggla but in most cases the player fails to pan out and the team is left for all intents and purposes with a 24 man roster. I’m not going to go into the minute details of the Rule 5 process, I’ll leave that discussion to the baseball academia or those who get even less sleep than I do. Instead I wanted to give my read on the James Skelton situation and what I think it says about the Diamondbacks and their farm system.

James Skelton was drafted out of high school by the Detroit Tigers in the 14th round of the 2004 amateur draft. In high school Skelton was an infielder but the Tigers projected him as a catcher and worked to build him into the successor to Ivan Rodriguez. Many Detroit Tigers insiders were shocked that the team would leave Skelton off their 40-man roster exposing him to the Rule 5 draft. Obviously the Arizona Diamondbacks were intrigued at his skill set and took a chance that Skelton could make the major league roster despite never playing above double-A.

Going into Spring Training you had to give Skelton the upper hand in nailing down the final roster spot on the Diamondbacks. After all, if he didn’t remain on the major league roster he would have to be offered back to the Tigers (after clearing waivers). That’s a lot of “if’s” to keep a player. Skelton was given every opportunity to try and make the team. The Diamondbacks not only liked what they saw of him behind the plate (including throwing out base runners from his knees), they liked his discipline in the batter’s box. General Manager Josh Byrnes and his staff put a lot of credence in statistical analysis and James Skelton projects into one of those high on-base percentage guys that Arizona could desperately use given the current line-up which has a propensity to strike out more often than walk. Unfortunately Skelton looked overmatched at the plate and struggled getting hits amassing only a ,150 batting average and showing very little power. It appeared that James Skelton was destined to go back to Detroit but then a deal was announced where the Diamondbacks would keep Skelton in exchange for RHP Brooks Brown.

Brooks Brown was a supplemental first round pick in the 2006 draft making him the 34th overall pick. He had been rated as the 15th overall prospect in the Diamondbacks farm system and was slated to return to Double-A Mobile to begin the 2009 season. Many in baseball described Brown as a solid pitcher that would ultimately be a back of the rotation starter. Brooks struggled during the 2008 season and this spring he seemed to lack velocity and displayed control issues at various times. Neither of these appear to be major concerns and the organization felt that Brown needed perhaps a little more seasoning at the Double-A level. So the question begs to be asked, why would the Arizona Diamondbacks trade a first round starting pitcher for a 14th round light hitting catcher/utility man?

My personal feelings on this is that looking over the Diamondbacks farm system it appears that most of the high ceiling prospects are pitchers meaning there is much more depth in that area. This is to be expected considering many of the highly touted prospects in the Diamondbacks organization have become regulars on the Major League roster leaving the farm system slightly drained. Arizona needs to have some depth in position players and trading a pitcher for position player might pay dividends later this season especially if Skelton can find his stroke in Mobile. With the departure of Juan Cruz, Brandon Lyon, and Orlando Hudson; Arizona has a plethora of draft choices in the first couple of rounds this June. The player development staff may have determined that the draft lacked depth at the catching position and this move could have been warranted.

At the present time it would appear that Skelton is blocked with Arizona having two young catchers already at the major league level in starter Chris Snyder and back-up Miguel Montero. With the Diamondbacks farm system somewhat depleted there are very few trading chips that could be used near the trading deadline in July if the Diamondbacks find themselves in need to make a play-off push. Having James Skelton at Double-A gives them a potential opportunity to trade either Snyder or Montero (specifically Montero) and still have some depth at catcher. With Snyder’s emergence as the full-time starter; having the luxury of a backup such as Montero may be too costly. It will be interesting to see how this plays out. I happen to believe that Miguel Montero will be moved before the end of the season (along with at least 1 outfielder) and if that happens look to see James Skelton in a Diamondbacks uniform.

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