Acquiring a new catcher is probably the top priority this off-season. Gregg Zaun may not return, Dioner Navarro turned back into a pumpkin, and the other 40-man options are reserves at best. With limited free agent options (read: budget) the Rays are probably getting said new catcher via trade. This means, the catcher likely won't be a heaven-sent instrument capable of destroying planets with a single flick of the wrist.
Enter J.R. Towles. He's not going to destroy planets -- well, maybe, if you count those little miniature glass globes as 'planets' - but he's almost certainly undervalued by his current team.
In 268 major league plate appearances, Towles has hit .188/.280/.329 - which translates into a .269 wOBA - and has thrown out 30% of attempted thieves. Nothing special about that. In the minors, the soon-to-be 26-year-old has showcased skills that made him one of the trendy rookie picks not long ago. Towles hit .289/.375/.455 in 420 plate appearances at Round Rock Triple-A and had a .864 OPS throughout his minor league career.
Baseball America ranked Towles as the Astros best prospect prior to last season. They had this to say about him:
Strengths: Towles has a chance to have average or better skills across the board. He has good pitch recognition, handles the bat well and controls the strike zone, so he should hit for average. He's adding strength and starting to pull the ball more often, so he could develop into a 15-20 home run threat. He's more agile and runs better than most catchers, with average speed and double-digit steal totals in each of his three full seasons. Behind the plate, Towles moves and receives well and calls a good game. He has a strong arm and his athleticism gives him a quick release.
Weaknesses: Because he has played the equivalent of just two full minor league seasons, Towles still needs polish. His primary goal is to get stronger, so he can tap into more of his power potential and be more durable. He can get pull-happy at times and should drive more balls to the opposite field when the opportunity presents itself.
Jason Kendall was the hot comparison and prior to starring in the 2009 horror project known as "Worst Catcher in Baseball" Kendall was a pretty nice player himself. From 2002 until 2006 (ages 28-32) he averaged roughly 3.5 WAR per season. If Towles can turn in three straight 2.5 win seasons he'd be the best catcher in Rays franchise history.
The Rays should have pretty decent knowledge of Towles since Gerry Hunsicker drafted him way back in 2004 while adding Hunter Pence and Ben Zobrist to the Astros system that same year. Further Houston drafted Jason Castro in the first round in the 2008 draft and Towles suffered through a fractured nose and hamstring issues this year, which lead them to play Ivan Rodriguez and Humberto Quintero at the major league level. Simply put: Ed Wade probably isn't very enamored.
CHONE had Towles with a .320 wOBA and ZiPS said .294. For reference: Dioner Navarro's wOBA was under .260. So yeah, it's safe to say almost anything would be an upgrade over 2009 Navarro. Further, Towles' major league walk and strikeout ratios aren't too far off his Triple-A ratios, meaning the only thing missing is the BABIP. Maybe he has an issue with getting the bat knocked out of his hands in the majors, but that's impossible to tell in only 250 plate appearances spread out over three seasons.
Maybe we can get Felipe Paulino thrown into the deal as well.