Pudge is coming to town. Jason Castro is the heir apparent, gaining experience in the minors. Humberto Quintero takes up a roster spot, and has two arms and two legs. Looks like JR Towles is the odd man out, relegated to being called up and down from AAA at the Astros' needs warrant it. Is his major league career done before it could even really begin?
I would hope not. For someone who was supposed to be the full time catcher going into last year, Towles certainly had a lot of people in his corner, predicting that he would be the next big thing in Houston baseball. That obviously didn't happen. A .137/.250/.253 line hit Cecil Cooper in the face, and he was forced to send Towles to AAA, and play Brad Aumus/Humberto Quintero a lot more than anyone could have wanted. It wasn't that those two were going to be a huge improvement. In fact, their contributions did little to beautify an ugly season line for Astro catchers. Towles just wasn't gaining anything by being in the majors. His confidence was slipping, along with his BABIP, which finished at a staggeringly low .157.
After getting only 43 ABs in Round Rock before his September 2007 call up, Towles had 168 last season, finishing with an OPS of .870, while collecting 7 HRs along the way. He still wasn't walking much, but his confidence had seemingly returned. Still, doubts linger as to whether he is a viable big league catcher, or if he is a AAAA player: doomed to hit well against minor league pitching, yet will eternally struggle when facing a major league hurler. The writing is all but on the wall that the organization is not thrilled with the prospects of JR Towles playing for the Astros. The question remains that, if not now, when?
I struggled with this question myself. It certainly looks like Towles is not going to be the featured backstop in this organization. Drafting Jason Castro with their first pick in 2008 signifies that the Astros are willing to invest a great deal of time (and money) to ensuring that he pans out. We were playing blackjack at the big dollar table- and when making those kinds of bets, the risk/reward is much higher. There is no way that Jason Castro isn't going to be given every opportunity to win the starting catching job if he's ready in 2010. With the experts second guessing the Astros every step of the way in regard to Castro, the organization and Castro have something to prove.
The same urgency, and investment does not surround JR Towles. If he works, he works. If not, then the team will not be much worse off than we already are. It was nice to be JR Towles a year ago right now. An uncluttered path to the big leagues, and a hot spring behind him, Towles was the future. Now, that crown has been placed on the head of another, and uncertainty surrounds Towles like the catching gear he dons to play.
Tampa Bay's catcher, Dioner Navarro, went into the 2007 season as an important part of the Ray's catching equation. He was 23, and had barely a full season's worth of major league at bats under his belt. After starting the season hitting .241/.323/.345 in April, Navarro had the sort of May that keeps GMs awake at night: .143/.167/.367. He walked twice in 70 ABs. Not quite what he, or anyone else, had in mind. Compare Navarro's May to Towles' May of 2008: .094/.200/.313, six walks in 53 at bats. Both struggled mightily, and both were young.
Towles remains roughly a season behind Navarro in minor league experience. Another year at AAA may be just what the doctor ordered for JR. He's showed that he can hit in the majors, if only briefly. Where the Rays and Astros differed in their approach to their catchers' struggles was that Tampa Bay stuck with Navarro in 2007. They rode out his poor May, and in 2008, he turned in a fine season. Towles may not be able to turn into as good a catcher as Navarro, but the model of a May struggle turned into a successful catcher is there.
JR Towles has produced better in the minors than did Navarro, and is just a year older. For what it's worth, he has a better, more athletic body than most catchers as well. With injury playing a large part of being a catcher, this is important to note. I'm intrigued as to what Ivan Rodirguez can do this season, and the thought of having Jason Castro catch on with the team in 2010 has me excited. JR Towles hopefully isn't going away, and that is fine by me.