The Houston Astros just don't like J.R. Towles.
I'm sure they're fine with him as a human being, but as a possible big-league catcher, they have shown so little faith in him, it's shocking.
Hence the meeting Ed Wade and Drayton had this weekend to set a budget for possibly going outside the organization for that new starting catcher's job. You know, the one that opened when Jason Castro's knee killed my hopes and dreams for the upcoming season?
To that end, one name that seems to be picking up steam (though entirely without comment by the Astros) is Pittsburgh backstop Ryan Doumit. Let's take a little look at the Pirates slugger:
Doumit will be 30 years old on April 3. He's also played in 534 career games and is just shy of 2,000 career plate appearances. That means what you see is what you get with Doumit. His numbers won't jump exponentially, but they also shouldn't be expected to fall sharply this season.
A power-hitting catcher who also hits better than .220 is hard to find. Doumit, however, seems to have worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates acquired Chris Snyder from the Diamondbacks last summer to act as their new starting catcher.
The "why" in that move is all about Doumit's defense. Doumit has never been particularly adept at fielding his position, and has moved between positions a bit in both the majors and minors as the Pirates struggled to find a way to get his bat onto the field. When he has caught extensively, the results have not been good.
It's hard to measure catcher defense effectively with the metrics we currently have, but it's safe to say the weakest part of his game is his arm. Doumit only threw out 11 base runners last season, allowing 79 steals in 90 attempts. That's pretty horrible and is a big reason why his Fielding Runs (according to FanGraphs) plummeted to -15.9 last season. Before that, it had hovered anywhere from +2.0 to -2.0.
That should be a concern for the Astros, but not much of one. After all, I expect Humberto Quintero to still get about 40 percent of the starts behind the plate. That means Doumit's defense would hurt the team, but not as badly as someone getting 600 plate appearances might.
Why don't the Astros do this deal? Well, for one, Doumit has quite a bit of money owed to him this season. He's set to earn 5.1 million in 2011 with two options years worth a total of 15.5 million. He also has a buyout of $500,000, but it must be exercised after the 2011 season for both option years. Basically, the Astros would either have Doumit for just one season or for three.
The money is a big factor, as Wade probably only got approval to go about 2-3 million over where they stand now. For the numbers to work with Doumit, that means the Pirates either eat a good chunk of that contract or the Astros trade a veteran to offset the cost. Since the organization probably doesn't want to give up a piece of the future for a one-year rental catcher, let's assume they go with option two. A package of J.R. Towles and Jeff Keppinger makes a good deal of sense.
For one, the Astros would be getting rid of two players they don't seem to have a lot of faith in for this upcoming season. Keppinger is making 2.3 million, which would offset Doumit's deal enough to make his contract workable on McLane's budget. Towles would fit as a better defensive option for Pittsburgh while also providing some spark. His flaws dealing with a pitching staff (which may or may not be overblown) would also be mitigated in backup role.
I still don't think this deal gets done. For one, Doumit's injury concerns are pretty great. As this FanGraphs article points out, Doumit has missed considerable time in each of the past four seasons. Throw in that he plays a tough position physically and the Astros won't be guaranteed their investment would necessarily pay off. If they're still going to have to rely on Carlos Corporan, why not keep Kepp and Towles for another move?
Doumit is definitely intriguing. He would provide another backup at first base, if Wallace gets sent to Triple-A, and has pop at a position where it's a rare thing. But, there are a ton of risks involved and I'm not sure the Astros are prepared to make this kind of desperation move.