We are used to Jose Molina not hitting very much, but this year he has been doing poorly even compared to his standards. In his first two years with the Rays, Molina was at least somewhat passable, posting a .228/.288/.328 line (73 OPS+). But this year his bat has slipped to just a .184/.238/.194 line (25 OPS+). Basically Molina in his first two years was hitting at a clip 27% under league average, but now he is around 75% under league average. With that batting, how many more chances does he get with the Rays?
Of course, Molina remains around for one reason: his pitch framing. His overall package on defense is nothing special–he throws runners out at around a league average clip and does an OK job of blocking pitches in the dirt despite poor athleticism. But from 2008-2013 Molina was the 2nd best pitch framer in all of baseball, according to Baseball Prospectus, and that is despite the fact that he was never more than a backup or tandem catcher. Baseball Pro says that Molina saved 116 runs through his pitch framing over those 6 years, so if you use the rule that 10 runs=1 win then Molina was worth around 1.9 wins per year on pitch framing alone. This year Molina’s pitch framing has once again been solid, with Stat Corner ranking him the 6th best pitch framer in baseball and putting him on pace to come close to the level of pitching framing he put up in 2013.
The problem, though, is that with Molina’s bat slipping, he is becoming less and less valuable. In the past, he has been able to provide positive value thanks to his combination of exceptional pitch-framing, average defense, and below-average but still passable hitting. Now that his hitting hasn’t even been passable, his pitch-framing is not making up the deficit. As such he is not a very desirable player any more, and thus the Rays could decide to part ways with him after this season.
That said, there is still reasoning behind keeping Molina around for 2015. First of all, he is under contract for 2015, and his $2,750,000 salary is guaranteed. If the Rays were to release him, that would be a sunk cost, and the reality is that the Rays can’t afford sunk costs given their payroll restrictions. Also, there isn’t a clear internal heir apparent to Molina. Curt Casali seemed like he could be after dominating with the bat at Double-A at the end of last year and beginning of this year, posting a .358/.490/.537 line in 57 games. However upon promotion to Triple-A his OPS has slipped to .694, and in a 23 game big league stint he has only hit .169/.246/.203. Casali could end up being a Rays backup for years to come, but he likely needs a bit more minor league seasoning before he gets there. You could also draw up a scenario in which Luke Maile and/or Justin O’Conner are ready for big league duty sooner rather than later, but neither would be ready as soon as the start of next year.
In an ideal world, the Rays would find a trade partner for Molina this offseason. They wouldn’t get much of anything in return, but if they can simply get his salary off the books that would be a huge gain for them. The combination of eating his salary AND not having a suitable replacement internally is likely too much for the Rays to stomach. However, if they can deal Molina, they can use the money they freed up to sign a stopgap until one of their catching prospects is big league ready. The Rays could release Molina and sign or trade for another catcher, but that is unlikely to happen given the money it would cost. Though it may take a little maneuvering from the Rays, it is conceivable that we could be seeing Jose Molina’s last stretch in a Rays uniform.