Bad teams need to make moves sometimes to show fans they are doing something. That's why you'll see hitting coaches or pitching coaches get fired. Sometimes, it's even the manager or general manager. Sometimes, as with the Astros tonight, a player becomes the scapegoat.
Catcher J.R. Towles has been given the starting catcher's job twice in the past three seasons. Each time, he's been back in the minors before May has finished. On Tuesday night, after a 1-0 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Houston optioned Towles to Double-A Corpus Christi and brought up journeyman catcher Kevin Cash from Round Rock to take his place. As the Houston Chronicle notes, the Astros moved Alberto Arias to the 60-day disabled list to make room for Cash on the 40-man roster.
Two things stand out about this move. First, you will see Jason Castro next month. As Mattress Mack says, "I guarantee it!" A struggling offensive team doesn't promote a catcher with a career .186/.248/.287 line and expect the offense to get better. They also won't entrust the starting job for long to a guy hitting .200/.220/.275 (I'm looking at you, Q). This move is about clearing the way for Castro, pure and simple. Towles was sent to Double-A not because he can't play, but more as a holding move until Castro is promoted. The two catchers on the Hooks' roster were Brian Esposito and Lou Santangelo. Both are roster filler more than prospects at this point and one of them will get sent up to Round Rock to back up Castro.
Is this a good move? Castro hasn't been hitting for average, but Houston's director of player development Ricky Bennett cautions against using statistics with minor leaguers. The team cares more about approach to the game and how a guy handles himself than it does stats. I, on the other hand, want to know if a guy can handle big league pitching. When he can't hit over .230 against Triple-A guys, why could he do better against the Cubs or Brewers? No 'approach' is going to show me different when tons and tons of data say guys don't magically become better hitters when they hit the big leauges.
So, yeah, I don't think Castro is ready. Could he just be off to a slow start? Sure. Could the Astros wait until July to call him up? Probably not that long. The reason I guaranteed he'd be up by June is that's when his arbitration clock would get pushed back a season. This team can muddle through with two light hitting catchers for a month. Any longer than that, fans will start running away in droves. That's not what owner Drayton McLane wants. Thus, the team will time Castro's arrival to generate a big interest boost. Maybe he'll get called up for the Rangers series in June. Maybe it'll be for that first homestand during June's first week. I do know it'll seem more important than it is.
Why am I so sure Castro will be up sooner rather than later? Because neither catcher on the roster can hit. We know what Humberto Quintero can do. He's a pretty good defensive catcher who can hit a double or a home run occasionally but who doesn't have much power or a high OBP. Who is Kevin Cash?
Cash is the son of former big leaguer Ron Cash, but has actually spent more time in the majors than his dad. Cash the Younger has played with four different teams now, opening his career with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2002 and playing most recently with the New York Yankees in 2009. The Astros invited him to spring training as a non-roster invitee and he accepted an assignment to Round Rock before the season.
He's never gotten more than 197 plate appearances or gotten more than 13 extra base hits in a season. In 2004, when he got his most playing time, Cash struck out 59 times in 197 plate appearances. That's a 30 percent strikeout rate, right in line with his career average of 28.4 percent.
When I talked to Marc Bombard about Cash, he seemed to like him, saying he's a good enough player to start, but implying that Castro would be getting most of the playing time. I'm not sure he meant 'start at the big league level,' but the Astros have to do something.
When I was talking with Stephen and Evan about this, Evan suggested that Towles' struggles to get on the same page with Roy Oswalt may have had something to do with the demotion. I'm not totally sold on that decision, but I do think Towles' inability to hit coupled with his struggles connecting with pitchers may have led to his demise. We're not in the clubhouse, so we don't know what that dynamic is like, but I'm again reminded of when the Astros brought up Mitch Melusky and he flamed out so memorably. Catchers are one of the most important positions on the team from a chemistry standpoint (if team chemistry exists). Let's hope Castro has more.
The second thing that stands out about this move is the Astros are getting a tad desperate. Harsh measures will start to be taken. Guys may be traded. Guys could get angry. You might have to say goodbye to Roy Oswalt or Kaz Matsui. You might see Wandy Rodriguez get traded straight up for Javy Vasquez.
Desperate people can do crazy things and this smacks of a move just to make a move. Maybe he got sent down for all the reasons we talked about above, but Towles was hitting better. Given a whole season to play, he might have turned into a pretty good hitter. As it is, he never really got a fair shake. One of the first lessons my dad ever taught me was, that life isn't fair. Right now, it's not fair to Towles and it's not fair to us fans, who have to watch this team play day after day.