Who Shot J.R.?

added 3/10/2010 by Bob Hulsey

One of the stories that may be most eagerly watched this spring is the development of catcher J.R. Towles. The Crosby native now has 2008 first-rounder Jason Castro breathing down his neck as Houston's "catcher of the future". Towles is determined to hold off the challenge of Castro as well newcomer Kevin Cash and veteran Humberto Quintero in the spring camp at Kissimmee for as long as he can.

Most Astro fans know J.R.'s story. Rushed through the Houston farm system, Towles came up to the parent club in September of 2007 at age 23. He had a spectacular month, batting .375 in 14 games, including a homer and five doubles. It took little time for Towles to set the franchise record for most RBIs in a game (8), which he did against the Cardinals on September 20th.

With Brad Ausmus' time in Houston winding down, Towles was penciled into the starting role for 2008 with Ausmus serving as mentor and back-up. While Towles showed some power in early contests, his success waned with each week. Through April 24th, he had good numbers for a catcher (.224/.367/.510/.877) but then came a slide that would send him back to AAA Round Rock. From April 25th to June 1st, he had just five hits and his average fell to .145 and his OPS to .552. He returned to Houston twice more and finished with .137/.250/.253/.503 totals. He looked lost and confused at the plate.

2009 started out much the same way. He started the year in Round Rock, was called up twice due to injuries to Quintero and was injured himself while in the minors. His numbers at AAA weren't bad but he didn't produce much when he was called up to the majors. Brought back up in September, Towles' average fell to .094 on September 23rd. It had been two years since he showed the early promise he carried when he first arrived.

But on the season's final road trip to Philadelphia and New York, under interim manager Dave Clark, Towles seemed to re-discover whatever had been missing. It started with an infield single against Brad Lidge in the ninth inning of an 8-2 victory on September 28th. The next day, he walked, singled and doubled off J.A. Happ. The following day, J.R. drilled two solo homers off Pedro Martinez into the Citizen Bank Park bleachers. As I watched him trot the bases on his second round-tripper from my sports bar seat, Towles broke out a big grin as if his long nightmare was finally over.

He added one more double before the season ended, finishing with uninspiring totals of .188/.250/.354/.604 in 16 games. But in that final week, it looked like J.R. Towles had turned a corner.

Through six games this spring, Towles is as hot as Lance Berkman has ever been. He's 8-for-12 (.667) with five doubles and a gaudy 1.797 OPS. He's also been hit by pitch twice, perhaps a sign that pitchers are trying to keep him from digging in. He hasn't been just teeing off on spring camp fodder, either. He has been starting and hitting guys expected to make the big league roster, including Atlanta phenom Tommy Hanson.

It's way too early to know if J.R. Towles is back on track from where he was in 2007. We'll need several more months to make that determination. But those in a rush to anoint Castro as the new Astros catcher might want to wait and see which direction Towles' path goes. If nothing else, Towles could be groomed as a first baseman or third baseman if the Astros insist on putting Castro behind the plate. Short term, Towles can be a valuable back-up and could, ideally, give Castro a year at AAA to refine his game before his big league service clock begins.

A popular teammate, no doubt there are a lot of Astros rooting for Towles to show he can do over a full season what he has shown in brief flashes. The confidence has returned. The real question is whether he can build on it and how patient the Astros will be with him.