Insider: Rays’ Reportedly Sign Jose Molina

Multiple outlets are reporting the Tampa Bay Rays and free agent catcher Jose Molina are nearing a one-year deal with an option for 2013. The story which broke on twitter (hat tip to Kevin Richardson) has yet to be confirmed by either side. Tampa Bay would be Molina’s fifth stop in the major leagues, having spent time with the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees, and Toronto Blue Jays. The 36-year-old hit .281/.342/.415 for the Blue Jays in 2011 – his best offensive output in a season in which he topped 100 plate appearances.

Despite the career-highs on offense, Molina will not be contracted for his offense. His walk and strikeout rates are below the league average while his 2011 batting average (.281) appears to be a one-year wonder due to a higher-than-usual batting average on balls in play. This may not please fans clamoring for offensive production, but the current talent pool for catchers is rather shallow on that side of the ball. Meanwhile, Molina’s three-year slash line of .250/.314/.359 would be an upgrade over the group that hit just .194/.274/.333 for Tampa Bay last season. What he lacks at the plate, he more than makes up for it behind the dish.

The brother of former big league catcher Bengie Molina and current St. Louis Cardinal Yadier Molina, Jose has spent more than a decade in the big leagues largely because of his defense. A sniper hidden behind a catcher’s mask, he has gunned down 40% of attempted base stealers in his career.  In early an 2010 contest, he was a perfect 4-for-4 in throwing out Tampa Bay runners. It marked the first time the Rays were thrown out four times in one game. In addition to his arm, Baseball Prospectus’ Mike Fast recently discovered that no catcher has been better at framing pitches over the past five seasons than Molina. According to Fast’s research, Molina’s framework has saved his team 73 runs since 2007. Conversely, Dioner Navarro – the Rays’ primary catcher from 2006-2010 – cost his team 19 runs. Kelly Shoppach – the man who Molina would replace – was middle of the pack.

While the signing of Molina would likely mean the end of Shoppach’s time in Tampa Bay, John Jaso, Robinson Chirinos, and Jose Lobaton should all still complete for playing time. Molina – a right-handed batter – has hit just .234./279/.328 against right-handed pitchers in his career. His career .678 OPS versus lefties is uninspiring; however, that would still represent a better option than the left-handed Jaso and the unproven Lobaton or Chirinos. Even if Molina gets the bulk of the work against southpaws and select right-handers, he would leave plenty at-bats for a platoon partner against the rest of the orthodox pitchers.  In addition to his physical abilities, he could prove valuable as a mentor for the younger catchers on the Rays roster.

As an organization, the Rays should have a good feel for Molina’s strengths and weaknesses. He has spent nearly all of the past four years in the American League East and previously played under Joe Maddon from 2001-2005 with the Angels. As a quirky side note, each of the past three World Series Champions (Jose with the 2009 Yankees, Bengie with the 2010 San Francisco Giants,  and Yadier with the 2011 St. Louis Cardinals) have employed a Molina brother.

Without terms, it is impossible to say how good of a deal Tampa Bay may be getting. That said, considering the current market for veteran catchers, and the way the team budgets available funds, it safe to say it will be favorable deal. Rod Barajas (1 yr, $4 million with the Pittsburgh Pirates) appeared to set the ceiling for veteran backstops this off-season while Matt Treanor (1yr, $1 million with the Los Angeles Dodgers) likely represents the floor. Considering the Rays declined Shoppach’s $3.2 million option, it is a good bet Molina will receive less.

For a team that prides itself on pitching and defense, and a catcher who has made a living on handing pitching staffs and controlling the running game, a pairing of Molina and the Rays seems like a natural marriage abilities and available resources.