The next five weeks will go a long way in determining if J.R. Towles will begin to hit or go down like Robbie Wine in the history of once-promising Houston Astros catching prospects who end up more slag than successful.
Towles enters the spring entrenched in a duel with fellow good field-no hit backstop Humberto Quintero for the right to keep the starting seat warm long enough for top farmhand Jason Castro to hone his skills before wresting the position.
For Towles, the stakes couldn't be higher.
After an impressive .375-1-12 in a 40 at-bat audition late in 2007, the Astros anointed him with a roster spot the following spring. At the time, the club envisioned his bat would eventually overtake incumbent Brad Ausmus, but Towles proved to be overwhelmed by big league pitching, hitting .147-4-16 before taking the short drive up I-35 to Class AAA Round Rock.
He would draw only six at-bats in a "Let's not forget about him" stretch late in the season, finishing with a .137 average, putting him in Wine Country.
As in Robbie Wine, the Astros' first round pick (eighth overall) in the 1983 draft. The club thought so highly of the former Oklahoma State star that they bypassed a young hurler from the University of Texas that went 11 picks later.
While Wine hit a robust .146 in 41 at-bats from 1986-87, the aforementioned Longhorn mustered seven Cy Young awards and 354 wins. PED allegations or not, Roger Clemens turned out as a slightly better big leaguer.
Towles' .299 average in the minors is a strong indication the potential his there. The optimist can hold hope in the knowledge that with lower expectations, Towles begins to tap into his skills and provide the Astros with a level of offensive production the club hasn't seen behind the plate since Mitch Meluskey delivered .300-14-69 in 2000.
The 26-year-old Towles knows this is perhaps his last shot with the Astros, who will bring up Castro—their 2008 first round selection—at some point this season. Castro, in camp as a non-roster invitee, is the crown jewel of a barren minor league system, and with the club showing no indication they will be a factor in the National League Central chase, will be given every chance to sew up the position at a moment's notice.
"Like I said before, I'm not going to wake up in the morning and not know how to hit," Towles told MLB.com writer Brian McTaggart earlier this week. "It's just that I had to go down to AAA and find my swing, and did well, and got some more playing time in the latter part of September and proved I can hit up here [six hits in his last 16 at-bats]."
Both Towles and the Astros enter March envisioning that the lessons learned from two seasons of bouncing from the bigs to the minors will finally turn "potential" into production for the Crosby, TX native.