You know, the guy that happened to be rated Houston's best prospect coming into the 2008 season by Baseball America? Okay, so maybe Houston's system wasn't exactly good (the names behind Towles? Felipe Paulino, Troy Patton and Juan Gutierrez), but you don't get rated as the 53rd best prospect in the game for no reason.
Well, after falling flat on his face during his first stint with the big league club, he's back at it, battling Houston's newest big thing behind the plate, top prospect Jason Castro, for the everyday job in Houston. Now, both of them have hit quite well this spring, whatever that really means, but Towles is the favorite to win the job because presumably the Astros want to hold back Castro's service time clock from starting.
Which is probably a good thing, because there's still a good chance that Houston manages to get something from its once-prized backstop. After mashing Double-A to the tune of a .433 wOBA in 257 plate appearances in 2007, he got cups of coffee with both the Triple-A and big league clubs before being sent back to Triple-A for the 2008 season. He thrived in Triple-A that year, posting a .372 wOBA, getting a shot at the Astros' everyday job.
To put it lightly, Towles didn't look ready. In 171 plate appearances, he posted a .235 wOBA, thanks to an abysmal .137/.250/.253 line. He had trouble with making contact, but he was also plagued by a nasty .157 BABIP though. Then again he only managed to hit line drives in roughly 11% of his at-bats, so the low BABIP isn't all bad luck, as he simply wasn't making much hard contact.
While there seemed to be good reason to believe that Towles could still be a solid MLB catcher, before the 2009 season the Astros opted to sign veteran Ivan Rodriguez and let him split time with Humberto Quintero. Towles went back to Triple-A and continued to do his thing, posting a .380 wOBA. But he also showed serious improvement in his approach at the plate, evidenced by easily the best walk rate of his career, an impressive 12.4% mark over 178 plate appearances. But his struggles at the major-league level continued, as he posted a .258 wOBA in 53 plate appearances in Houston.
Right now, though, I think that it's time for the Astros to really commit to Towles and see what they have. He's proven himself at the highest levels of the minor league ladder, he's 26 so he's not going to get much better, and he really deserves a legitimate shot at an everyday job with the big league club. It's not exactly like Houston has their eyes on the World Series this year, at least realistically, and Towles is clearly superior to Quintero, who's in line to back-up the winner of the Towles/Castro competition.
CHONE seems particularly bullish on Towles, projecting him to be about a league average hitter, with solid patience and power, good for about two runs below average roughly over the course of about 500 plate appearances, a reasonable expectation for a young catcher. Other systems project his BABIP woes to continue, but he never really had that issue in the minors so CHONE's .295 projection seems reasonable.
CHONE also believes that Towles is a couple runs above average with the glove, based on TotalZone data from the minors, and while that may be a tad optimistic, we'll still call him +1 over the course of 125 games. Put it all together, a -2 hitter, +1 fielder at catcher, and that's roughly a 2.8 WAR player over the course of 125 games, roughly a full season for a catcher.
Now, we don't really know exactly how well Towles will do defensively at the ML level, and maybe his power and patience don't translate as well to the majors as CHONE expects. But the Astros can use all of the young, controllable talent that they can get, and in Towles they seem to have a decent shot at a pretty solid regular at a premium defensive position.
Towles may not necessarily stick around regardless of how well he plays in 2009, the Astros seem particularly high on Castro and his spot at the team's catcher of the future seems pretty concrete, but even then he'd become a nice trade chip for an organization that's clearly lacking in talent as a whole. Now's the time for Houston to see what they have in Towles, and odds are that it could be something pretty nice.