Prospect Smackdown: J.R. Towles vs. Geovany Soto

Prospect Smackdown: J.R. Towles vs. Geovany Soto

Background and Intangibles

Towles: J.R. Towles was drafted in the 20th round in 2004, out of North Central Texas Junior College by the Astros. He hit just .243 in his pro debut in the Appy League, but a .346/.436/.549 outburst in the Sally League in '05 drew notice, granted he was limited to 45 games by injury. Towles has remained a very effective hitter throughout the minors, though nagging injuries have slowed his defensive progress. He hit great in the majors late last year and is expected to be the starting catcher this spring for Houston. Scouts like his leadership skills.
Soto: Soto was drafted in the 11th round in 2001, out of high school in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico by the Cubs. He quickly drew notice as a solid defender with an adequate bat, reaching Triple-A in 2005 at age 22. Regarded as a future backup, he had a stupendous and surprising 2007 season, hitting .353/.424/.652 in Triple-A and .389/.433/.667 in the majors, thrusting him up the prospect lists. He is expected to be Chicago's starting catcher this spring. Scouts like his leadership skills.
Advantage: Neither player was a hot pick when drafted, and although the paths each has taken to get where they are now have been quite different, both are well-regarded as field leaders. Looks even to me, if different.

Physicality, Health, and Tools

Towles: Towles was born February 11, 1984. A right-handed hitter and thrower, he is listed at 6-2, 190 pounds. An excellent athlete, he is wiry strong and has much more speed than the average catcher. On defense, he features a strong arm and tons of mobility, but needs additional polish with his throwing mechanics. With the bat, he has the bat speed to hit for a high batting average with moderate power, along with decent though unspectacular plate discipline. Injuries have been a factor: finder and hand injuries cost him substantial playing time in 2005 and 2006, and some scouts are concerned that his wiry frame may not hold up to a long grind particularly well.
Soto: Soto was born January 20, 1983. A right-handed hitter and thrower, he is listed at 6-1, 200 pounds. He weight as much as 230 pounds in the past, but went on a fierce workout and fitness program last spring with excellent results. Even when he was heavier, he was a good athlete, but losing the pounds has increased his quickness both offensively and defensively. He has a strong arm and is fine all-around with the glove. With the bat his plate discipline has always been good and his strikeout rate moderate, and the addition of a touch more loft to his swing last year, and more muscle, enabled him to crush more balls. He has had some nagging injuries but nothing particularly serious.
Advantage: Again, rather different but on balance close overall. Towles is the superior athlete, but Soto has been more durable. Soto has more current defensive polish, but Towles is improving. Soto had the outstanding 2007 season, but Towles has hit at every level every year since rookie ball, not just last year. My instinct here is that Soto is the safer bet in the short run, but that Towles has a higher upside, but also higher risk.

Performance and Polish

Towles:  Towles is a career .301/.395/.471 hitter at the minor league level, including .324/.425/.551 last year in the Texas League. Scouts say he hasn't fully tapped into his power yet, and that he needs additional polish on both offense and defense.
Soto: Soto is a career .280/.360/.426 hitter at the minor league level. Even before his 2007 outburst he showed a solid OBP and occasional power spikes. The general consensus among Pacific Coast League observers I spoke with last year was that the power increase last year was legitimate, but that the batting average would drop against big-league pitching. He is more polished than Towles at this point both offensively and defensively.
Advantage: An odd assessment: Towles has been more consistently productive through the minors, but is the also the guy considered to have less polish right now. Given his greater Triple-A experience I think you have to go with Soto here.

Projection

Towles: Towles projects as a starting catcher at the major league level, capable of hitting .280-.300, higher than that in his best years, with better speed than most catchers and solid defense, once he settles in and gets some experience. PECOTA comps include non-catches such as Raul Ibanez, Corey Hart, and Jeff Cirillo, plus catchers such as A.J. Hinch and Eli Marrero. Upside VORP 111.1. It kind of looks like PECOTA is confused by Towles' profile somewhat and I think it underestimates what he is capable of in the long run.
Soto:  Soto projects as a starting catcher at the major league level, capable of hitting .260-.280 with a high on-base percentage, good power, and solid defense. PECOTA comps include Charles Johnson, Ramon Hernandez, Todd Zeile, and Mike Macfarlane, but also Derek Parks and Tim Laudner. Upside VORP 155.3.
Advantage:  Both should be very good, even excellent, but the shape of that goodness will differ. I agree that Soto probably won't be hitting .350 in the majors, but even at .260-.280 with walks and power he will be very good. Towles won't draw as many walks and I doubt he'll show as much power in the short run, but has a better chance to hit .300 or better down the line, and the power should increase as he matures.

Summary

You can see why I picked this one for a smackdown. I regard Soto as the better bet for success this year, and a "safer" pick overall. But Towles has some really terrific upside given his athleticism. Overall I rate Soto a bit higher, but it's close considering how different the two players are.

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