The Astros are fully committed to Jason Castro -- last year's top prospect -- as their catcher of the future, and called him up to the Majors last year, and they like what veteran Humberto Quintero brings as a steady backup. Towles is coming off a disappointing year that began with him winning the Opening Day job and ended with him having season-ending thumb surgery in July.
The roller coaster of the last few years -- from the improbable eight-RBI game against the Cardinals in his rookie season in 2007 to getting sent to Double-A Corpus Christi last May -- hasn't outwardly appeared to take a toll on Towles.
"I had a lot of success when I first got up here, but you can't get too high or too comfortable," he said. "You have to stay even-keeled and know things are going to work out. I have a good attitude and know things are going to work out."
Towles, now 27, has the same low-key, likeable demeanor he possessed when he came to camp as the team's No. 1 prospect prior to the 2008 season. In his fourth Major League camp, he goes about his business quietly and efficiently, though out of the glare of the spotlight of the last few years.
Towles beat out Castro for the starting catching nod last spring, but the good fortunes didn't last too long. He hit .191 with one homer and eight RBIs in 17 games, including 13 starts at catcher, and was sent to Double-A. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and things only got worse. He tore a ligament in his thumb sliding into a base five games into his Double-A stint and eventually had surgery.
"It was a lost year for J.R., and the little bit I had a chance to talk to him [Thursday], he was in with a very good attitude and he knows he has to come and compete," Astros general manager Ed Wade said. "Every time we make a plan, something interjects itself into the plan and things can change. All that he can do right now is go out there and show that he's healthy. He plays a premium position and can be an asset to the ballclub."
Towles is healthy, having undergone extensive therapy on his thumb, wrist and forearm following the surgery to regain his strength. Emotionally, he's relied on his deep religious faith and his family, including his wife Brittany, to help him navigate through the baseball minefields of the past few months.
"You always assess the situation, but then I try not to think about it too much," he said. "I try to stay upbeat and not get too down. It's hard when you see everybody else playing and doing well and you know you're capable of being out there with them and helping the team win, and you're not. It is a little discouraging at times. You have to keep a good attitude and keep your head up and be ready for whatever is next."
Towles grew up in the Houston area and was drafted by the Astros in 2004 out of North Central Texas College. He made a steady rise through the system before jumping from Class A to the Major Leagues in the summer of 2007. He burst onto the scene in September of that year and hit .375 with a homer, five doubles and 12 RBIs -- eight in one game -- in 14 games, but he has spent most of the last three seasons in the Minor Leagues.
He's a career .297 hitter in the Minor Leagues, which gives him hope that his .189 batting average in 281 career Major League at-bats is an aberration.
"It's not like I'm not going to be able to hit or catch," he said." I've always worked hard and done well and had success where I've been. I know I'm capable of playing up there. I just need to have a shot up there and take advantage of it."
Towles says the Astros haven't said much about where he stands, but it doesn't matter anyway. His goal of establishing himself as a solid Major League catcher hasn't diminished with the years, or the memories of better days gone by.
"I'm only responsible for myself, and if I continue to work hard and keep my faith, I'm going to be right where I need to be," he said. "[The Astros] haven't said much, but they said to come in and work and you never know what can happen. I need to play like I want to win the job."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.