J.R. Towles Left Out In The February Cold

HOUSTON - APRIL 05: J.R. Towles #46 of the Houston Astros watches his ball in the air against the San Francisco Giants on Opening Day at Minute Maid Park on April 5, 2010 in Houston, Texas. The Giants defeated the Astros 5-2. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Hailed as the Astros' future catcher in 2008, the opportunities are now scant for Towles behind Jason Castro and Humberto Quintero.

What a crash down to earth former-touted prospect J.R. Towles has had since September 20th 2007, his seventh major league game where he picked up eight RBI against the Cardinals

Ever since the 27 year old has experienced nothing but frustration. Ranked the 53rd best prospect coming into the 2008 season by Baseball America, six behind fellow catcher Geovany Soto and nine behind Reds first baseman Joey Votto, he has the unenviable distinction of owning a major league .189 batting average, and seven years after being drafted out of college, little prospect of making the major league roster coming out of Spring Training.

With former-first round pick Jason Castro a shoe-in to be the Houston Astros everyday catcher, Towles is relegated to scrapping it out with Humberto Quintero for the back-up role. But there is a catch.

He has not got a chance of winning that job either.

It is a testament to Quintero's defensive capabilities that make him valuable despite his obvious offensive deficiencies that he has stuck with the Astros for six seasons and counting, and despite being sent down to the minor leagues in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009. 

Quintero might not have put himself in front of Towles in the organisation's depth chart if not for how well he and Brett Myers performed as a battery. Myers numbers when he threw to Quintero do leap out at you. In 17 starts he owned a 2.68 ERA and a 3.24 SO/BB ratio, lower than his overall 2010 numbers (3.14 and 2.73 respectively). His dWAR, according to Baseball Reference was also 1.0 for 2010, a significant number considering that he only played 88 games last year. He will likely serve as Myers personal catcher in 2011, while also giving Castro the odd day off if and when Brad Mills deems it necessary.

In fact, some of these issues were discussed at The Crawfish Boxes just over a week ago, with specific reference to how catchers frame pitches. David Coleman also profiled Castro last week, paying tribute to his defensive skill set as a catcher. 

If Towles struggles in 2008 and 2009 had not been enough for the young man, 2010 provided the real kick in the teeth. When he was demoted to Double-A Corpus Christi, not Triple-A, because Castro was installed there, reports began to surface that Towles and Roy Oswalt had been having communication issues, with Kevin Cash brought in to replace him. To compound this horrendous start to the year, he then tore a ligament in his thumb whilst sliding into a base, requiring season-ending surgery. 

It is a shame if his talents come to nothing, because there is no doubt that the skills are there, as his minor league numbers attest to. However well he was hitting, a mistake might have been made when he was given a position on the 25-man roster out of Spring Training in 2008 when he had just 50 plate appearances at AAA. But some might argue that would be using hindsight a little too much. 

"You always assess the situation, but then I try not to think about it too much," Towles told Brian McTaggart last week. "I try to stay upbeat and not get too down. It's hard when you see everybody else playing and doing well and you know you're capable of being out there with them and helping the team win and you're not. It's a little discouraging at times." 

Most of his major league struggles seem to be going on in his head. Unless Brett Myers is traded mid-season (and if any would be trade partners are smart enough they would take Quintero too, by extension), then opportunities will likely be scarce for him with the Astros, discounting the ridiculous notion that he might get any playing time at first base, even if he is taking grounders there

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