If you were hoping the Twins would retire Michael Cuddyer‘s number, I have bad news for you. But if you were hoping to see the Twins address the lack of catching depth, I have some good news.
The bad news and the good news are both J.R. Towles. The former Astro was once a top catching prospect, and he will report to camp with the rest of the Twins’ pitchers and catchers on February 18th. Towles will wear Cuddyer’s old #5 in Spring Training games.
Oakland drafted Towles twice: first in the Moneyball draft of 2002, then again in 2003. But it was the Astros who signed him out of Texas’s Collin County Community College after selecting him in round 20 in 2004. His early minor league career is filled with eye-catching stat lines. .346/.436/.549 at A ball in 2005, .317/.382/.525 in 2006, .324/.425/.551 at AA in 2007, and .304/.370/.500 in 2008. He reached double digits in homers in 2006 and 2007. Hitting in the minors has never been a problem for the 27 year old Towles. In fact, his track record of minor league success makes Towles one of the more intriguing non-roster prospects in camp with the Twins this year.
But he hasn’t hit at the Major League level yet. Towles has gotten at least a taste of MLB game action each season since 2007. In that time, he has hit just .187/.267/.315 with 11 homers in 484 plate appearances. Towles actually won the Astros’ starting catcher job in 2010, but he got off to a slow start at the plate (.191/.235/.319) and was sent down after 17 games. To add injury to insult, he tore a tendon in his finger a week later and lost the rest of his season. He spent 2011 between Houston, where he hit .256/.293/.549, and AAA, where he hit .276/.430/.400.
He has never played any position other than catcher in his MLB career -though he has at practiced taking ground balls at first base, and he did play a game in center field back in 2006 at Class A ball. If Towles has any value to the Twins, it will be as a catcher, not as a utility player. It’s tough to evaluate catchers based on stats, but the consensus from online articles seems to be that he’s adequate but not great as a defender. Thus, Towles’s ticket back to the Majors will require him to regain the hitting ability he showed as a young prospect.
Given a chance, does Towles still have the potential to be a legitimate MLB hitter? Could he at least be a competent backup catcher who can push Drew Butera and Rene Rivera for a slot on the 25 man roster? Or is he a AAAA player who won’t ever be able to put it together in the Show?
We’ll find out this Spring.
We have two more non-roster invitees to go. You’ll find their profiles here on Puckett’s pond tomorrow and Saturday, so be sure to check back. You can read the previous entries here.