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Non-Roster Invitee Madness: J.R. Towles

Minor League contracts with an invitation to spring training have been popping up like wildflowers this offseason and have seemingly become more common in recent years than they were in the early part of the decade. Frequently, it’s a way for teams to get a good look at an aging free agent without committing either the roster spot or any amount of money they’ll actually miss.

That doesn’t mean that players on an NRI are inherently worthless, especially in a fantasy context were you can let the team do the heavy lifting of figuring out whether a player has much left to offer. For deep-league players, especially those in two-catcher, AL- or NL-only leagues, there’s talent floating around in the minor league pool that will likely get a shot at a backup job. The most promising of the bunch: J.R. Towles.

Towles was once a shiny prospect in the Astros organization, a catcher that could hit, flashed a little bit of power, and could throw out a few runners — enough to make it possible that he’d stick behind the plate anyway. It’s hard to look at Towles’ stats and say that he had a fair chance and threw it away; he’s never had more than 175 major league PAs in a season and even his time in the minors has been fragmented. Injuries have played a role, though the exact extent to which that has been his Waterloo is hard to tell given the state of minor league injury data.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that he can play enough defense to stick behind the plate and has a minor league OPS of .859. He’ll turn 28 just before camps open, so it isn’t as though you have to hope against all odds that he’ll recapture the promise of his youth. The question is whether he’ll be able to make the team or if he’ll have to hang out in Rochester until a roster spot opens up. The Twins are rather stocked on catchers with Joe Mauer, Ryan Doumit, and Drew Butera all already on the roster, but that doesn’t mean the way is barred for Towles.

Mauer and Doumit don’t exactly have the best record of staying healthy and the Twins seem content with the idea of rotating the two between catching, first base, and DH in order to keep both bats in the lineup while lessening the catching load. What this means is that there’s a real possibility that they’ll carry a traditional backup catcher, meaning Towles need only beat out Butera and he’s on the roster. Which is doable, but might be difficult.

This time last year, Towles wouldn’t have had a prayer of beating out Butera, who the Twins like for his ability to handle the pitching staff and throw out runners. He is, in almost every way, your quintessential all-glove-no-hit backup catcher and the team believed they could live with that. What they thought they could live with was a player who hit .220 and threw out about a third of baserunners in whatever limited playing time they got. In 2011, Butera threw out just under a third of those who ran against him — a perfectly fine rate — but hit just .167/.210/.239 in over 250 PAs. Butera is still a better defensive catcher than Towles, so if the Twins want to carry a catch-and-throw catcher, it’ll be Butera and Towles will head to Triple-A. If they think there’s a chance that whoever fills the role is going to get anywhere near the 250-300 PAs that Butera got last year, Towles will get a definite chance to show he can still hit in camp.

For the vast majority of fantasy players, Towles will still be too deep to use even if he makes the roster. However, he’s worth following through camp for players in multiple-catcher leagues, as he isn’t guaranteed to be mediocre and with the respective injury histories of Mauer and Doumit, he’ll have as good a shot at concerted playing time as any third catcher in baseball.