HOUSTON -- At a recent MVP Outreach Foundation Dinner, Astros general manager Ed Wade noticed a tall, lanky kid across the room and figured it was a youngster who hadn't yet grown into his own body, so to speak.
Then Wade realized that was no kid -- that was his 2008 Opening Day starting catcher.
"He's wiry but strong right now," Wade said, chuckling at the memory. "He has a chance to be a really good player."
At first glance, J.R. Towles does not look like the prototypical big league catcher. He's tall -- 6-foot-2 -- and relatively thin, at 190 pounds. That's a far cry from the stockier, thick-legged catchers who better fit the description of a big league backstop.
But don't let Towles' build fool you. The front office is excited about all facets of Towles' game, which is why, if all goes as planned, he'll take over as the front-line catcher in 2008, while his predecessor, Brad Ausmus takes a backup/mentor role.
Towles has had an interesting ascent to the big leagues. He started last year at Class A Salem, hitting .200 in his first 26 games with no homers and 11 RBIs. He was unexpectedly pushed to Double-A when catcher Lou Santangelo tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was handed a 50-game suspension, and Towles rose to the occasion, hitting .324 with 11 homers and 49 RBIs over 61 games.
Next stop was Triple-A Round Rock, where Towles hit .279 over a brief 13 games. He was called up to the big leagues when rosters expanded in September, and he burst onto the scene, hitting .375 with 12 RBIs over 14 games. He also set a franchise record by driving in eight runs on Sept. 20 at St. Louis, logging his first career home run while recording three extra-base hits.
Towles recorded at least one hit in eight of his last nine games and strung together a seven-game hitting streak, during which he batted .478 (11-for-23).
While no one expects the rookie catcher to keep up that frenetic pace, Wade is confident Towles is capable of making the necessary adjustments as the league's pitchers adjust to him. Wade marveled at Towles' bat speed, comparing him to the Phillies' Chase Utley, but from the right side of the plate.
"He can wear out third baseman and the left-field wall," Wade said.
The Astros aren't the only ones who are high on Towles. They had dozens of trade conversations this offseason and according to Wade, every team he talked to wanted the up-and-coming catcher.
"It was a non-issue for us as far as what our plans were," Wade said. "Young catchers are hard to find, especially when they have an upside offensively and defensively."
If there is a drawback, it's Towles' experience -- or lack thereof. Towles undoubtedly had a tremendous run when he was called up last year, but it was a small sampling. He'll head to Spring Training this year with only 14 games of big league experience. That's where Ausmus enters the picture.
Ausmus, 38, has been the Astros' main catcher for the better part of a decade, but this year, he'll assume a reduced role. He and the Astros worked out a one-year contract that calls for him to be a backup catcher and, more importantly, a teacher to Towles.
A veteran of 15 Major League seasons, Ausmus has long been lauded as one of the best defensive catchers in the game. The three-time Gold Glove Award winner gave Towles high praise when he signed his one-year deal early in the offseason and indicated a willingness to guide Towles in the areas where he needs work.
"As a receiver, he's very good," Ausmus said. "He's probably one of the better receivers in the league. But just arriving to the big leagues, there's some things he has to learn. It comes with experience, and he doesn't have experience. Hopefully, he'll speed up the learning process -- in theory, with me around."
Wade is confident that with Towles' talent and Ausmus' influence, the catcher position is in good hands.
"J.R. does have experience at big league level, and he has Ausmus to bounce things off and work with," Wade said. "[Towles will ] learn the league and make adjustments. He has tools that indicate he can play at this level for some time."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less