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Who Shot J.R.(Towles’ Career)?

Remember J.R. Towles? A few years back, Towles was the cream of a rather barren crop of Astros prospects. Baseball America rated the backstop as Houston’s top farm talent prior to the 2008 season, praising his diverse skill set and noting that the Astros envisioned Towles becoming the club’s first All-Star catcher since 1991, when Craig Biggio was blocking pitches instead of turning two.

Entering 2010, however, Towles’ career prospects are considerably dimmer. He made his big league debut in September of 2007, but two bitter cups of coffee in 2008 and 2009 have soured Houston’s opinion of its former prized pupil. And, if you listen closely, you can hear 2008 first-round pick Jason Castro breathing down Towles’ neck.

The Astros have received precious little from the catching position. In 2008, Houston had a collective .256 wOBA from those donning the tools of ignorance (29th in the majors). The team “improved” to .276 in 2009, rocketing up to 28th in the big leagues. Offensive ciphers like Brad Ausmus, Humberto Quintero and Ivan Rodriguez have been penciled into the lineup, as Towles toiled in Triple-A, on the bench or on the DL.

So, what’s going on here? Is Towles a bust, or have the Astros shot themselves in the foot by preferring veterans with slack bats? Who shot J.R.’s career? Let’s examine Towles’ history to figure out who done it.

Selected in the 20th round of the 2004 draft out of North Central Junior College, Towles basically spent the first three seasons of his pro career bashing and getting banged up.

He struggled in rookie ball during the summer of ’04, but batted a combined .327/.402/.534 in the Low-A South Atlantic in 2005 and 2006. Towles didn’t draw many walks (7.2 BB%) but he made frequent, loud contact (14.6 K%, with a .207 Isolated Power). Unusually agile for a catcher, Towles also earned some Jason Kendall comps by swiping 24 bases between ’05 and ’06 (he was caught 12 times, however).

However, Towles couldn’t answer the bell with any frequency. According to Baseball America, he needed surgery in 2004 after taking a foul tip off of his right index finger, slowing him at the start of 2005, and he dealt with right knee tendinitis in 2006.

Two-thousand seven turned out to be J.R.’s breakout campaign. He started slowly in the High-A Carolina League, but mashed after getting bumped up to the Double-A Texas League following Lou Santangelo‘s 50-game PED suspension. He also logged some games in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League.

In 422 combined PA, spent mostly in Double-A, Towles hit .287/.393/.447. J.R. drew ball four 8.8 percent of the time, whiffing 13.5 percent with a .160 ISO. Towles stole 14 bags, but he did far more harm than good by getting nabbed 13 times. A late-season stint in Houston was fruitful (a 157 wRC+ in 44 PA).

Towles looked poised to ease the anguish of Astros fans subjected to way, way too much Ausmus and Quintero behind the plate. From ’07 to 2009, he compiled .289/.375/.455 triple-slash with Round Rock, walking 9.3 percent, striking out 15.5 percent and posting a .166 ISO.

Yet, after two dismal stints with Houston, Towles’ career line in the majors would make Ausmus puff out his chest: .188/.280/.329 in 268 PA, a performance which rates as 38 percent worse than average, once park and league factors are accounted for (62 wRC+).

Those numbers probably make fantasy owners want to run and hide. But those willing to give Towles a chance could snag a quality offensive catcher at a dirt cheap price.

Chill out about the major league performance. We’re talking about half of a season’s worth of PAs, spread over three years. Even if you want to slice and dice such a small sample (not a good idea), there are positives to be found. Towles has drawn a walk 8.2 percent, with a .141 ISO. His BABIP in the majors is unsustainably low, at .218.

The career .299/.390/.473 minor league hitter is projected by CHONE to bat .252/.332/.409 for the Astros in 2010. For reference, the overall line for MLB backstops last season was .254/.320/.395.

The 26 year-old has little star potential, and Castro (ranked as Houston’s top prospect) isn’t far off. Also, injuries remain a problem: according to the Fantasy Pitch F/X DL Tool, J.R. was sidelined in both 2008 and 2009 with a strained hamstring, while missing time in ’09 with a fractured nose, too. But Towles figures to get the bulk of the playing time to start 2010.

Towles is far from a sure thing, given his propensity to get dinged up and Castro’s close major league ETA. Still, he has an interesting bat at a position where offense is often scarce. J.R. might not be long for Houston, but his career isn’t shot, either.