It turned into a pretty big year for Matt Skole, as he put together consistency with Triple-A Syracuse to the tune of 140 games, 24 homers and 78 RBIs. Skole, 27, was rewarded by his promotion to the Nationals’ 40-man roster for the first time in his career.
Skole wrapped up his season by playing for over a month in the Mexican Pacific Winter League.
In the second part of our look at the winter leagues, we focus on Skole. We also take a look at why winter leagues are so important to the Nationals and why they are so crucial to the clubs in the countries these games are played in.
“Matt had a great year,” said Nationals director of player development Mark Scialabba. “Finished up extremely well the last two months. His power numbers started to take off. He’s always had the ability to hit the ball a long way to left-center. His pull power has always been there. I think his approach has improved and he’s starting to stay more disciplined in the strike zone. He’s building more confidence because of that.
“He had a terrific year. He played the majority of the time at first but also played about 40 games at third. He actually showed the ability to play both corners extremely well. We are very, very proud of his accomplishments there, earning that (minor league) Gold Glove Award, which goes to only one first baseman in all of Minor League Baseball. And then taking that onto the winter leagues, going to Mexico and put himself in that challenging environment.”
Skole played in 37 games for Naranjeros de Hermosillo, hitting .237, with five doubles, three homers and 10 RBIs with 33 strikeouts and 30 walks.
“Still a little swing and miss in his swing, but he’s continuing to show that he knows the strike zone,” Scialabba said. “He’s getting walks. He’s learning how to be aggressive in the strike zone. He played in the Mexican League up until Thanksgiving. So it’s just a different experience for him. Hopefully, he picks up where he left off and comes to spring training, and he usually has impressed people in spring training. We are happy about his progress.”
Outfielder Brian Goodwin and right-hander Rafael Martin also played for Hermosillo. Players like pitchers Phillips Valdez and Wander Suero are getting a little taste of winter ball this year. Development is key: extra at-bats and more innings.
“It’s a great development opportunity as we’ve seen with a number of our players,” Scialabba said. “There’s a number of players that took off after their winter league experience. It’s a very different environment. It’s very intense. The urgency level is increased. It’s a short sample of opportunity, but it’s a high intensity. The fans are on top of you. The teams know that you have to produce or you are going to be sent home.
“I think the maturity level factors in as well. Just being away and putting yourself in a different challenging environment is going to help you grow. It’s not going to work for everybody. Some players might find it very difficult and not necessarily be able to rise to it and they need to come home. I think it’s a really unique opportunity for a most of our young players to see and be a part of. And we support the opportunity if they can get it.”
Scialabba said the Nationals can send anywhere from six to 10 players to winter league teams each offseason.
“If you can get a handful of players to play in these leagues every day, that’s a good sign,” Scialabba said.
There is even a minor league system in the winter leagues, and it’s especially fervent in Venezuela. The Nationals have had players participating on these minor league teams, as well.
Venezuela works under a free agency market. Teams there will sign prospects, who become reserves for that club for their career, unless they get traded. In the Dominican Republic, there’s a draft of players who have reached full-season Single-A ball.
But Scialabba says playing winter ball is valuable for other reasons. These games are their big leagues and it’s sometimes neighborhood versus neighborhood. These rivalries go back for generations and the games are not pickups or preseason; they are very important to the people that live in these cities and root for these clubs.
“There’s a development aspect, of course, that’s why we send players,” Scialabba said. “But it’s not the Arizona Fall League. It’s very much an environment where every night, there are people on top of the field and there’s a lot of pressure from the fans, the ownership and the general manager. That’s their league.
“There’s a lot of pride in baseball countries. That’s what a lot of the natives cheer for more so than some of the major league clubs. They are tied to very small towns or the islands wherever they are located. I can speak to the Dominica - you go to a Tigres del Licey (versus) Leones del Escogido game and it’s like going to a Yankees-Red Sox game. It’s a smaller environment, but the music and the culture and the passion is unbelievable. It’s a different style of game.”
You can read the first part of our look at winter league baseball here.