What Does Jose Molina’s New Contract Mean for the Rays?

By Robbie Knopf

Jose Molina has never been anyone’s idea of a starting catcher. But thanks his defense, specifically his talent at framing pitches, he has generated positive results for the Rays the last two years and the Rays are set to get him back for two more. The fact that the Rays and Molina were close was first reported by Buster Olney, and then Marc Topkin confirmed that they were talking about a two-year deal. There is always a chance that the deal could fall through, but the likelihood is getting higher and higher that Molina will be back in a Rays uniform. How will his impending contract affect the future of the Rays at the catcher position?

Molina may be returning, but that does not mean that his role will be the same. Molina made $1.8 million in 2013 after earning $1.5 million in 2012, and his new contract will likely be a touch below that same annual value. Even for the Rays, that is not very much money and it is a perfectly suitable price for a true backup catcher. Molina has garned the majority of the Rays’ starts at catcher the last two years, but he is aging and that ship has appeared to sail. Nevertheless, Molina’s defensive abilities are valuable enough that it is worth having him on the team for $1.5 million a year to start 50 or 60 games with another catcher ahead of him. The Rays don’t believe they can find a backup catcher better for their pitching staff then Molina, and ponying up a little cash to make that possible was an easy decision.

Catching alongside Molina the last two years has been Jose Lobaton, and with Molina settling into more of a backup role, Lobaton figures to become more of a true starting catcher. The issue with that, though, is that while Lobaton’s bat took a major step forward in 2013, his defense has noticeably below-average. Does re-signing Molina mean that the Rays are willng to deal with Lobaton’s defensive deficiencies as he transitions to a more prominent role? The answer appears to be yes–but Lobaton should not get so confident yet.

As we have discussed previously, the Rays seemed like a great fit for Cincinnati Reds catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is being pushed out after the Reds signed Brayan Pena. When Molina is officially back in the fold, their catching corps will be full and they will be set for another year of a Molina-Lobaton combination. That doesn’t mean, though, that they will stop looking to upgrade at the position. Having depth is not the same as having a perfect situation. The Rays are confident that Jose Molina will do enough the next two years to be a strong backup catcher. But if the right opportunity arises to acquire a player like Hanigan who could be a better all-around starting catcher than Lobaton, the Rays are not going to simply let it pass. The Rays will assess all their options, and they could end up making two catcher trades by the end of it all: one to acquire a new catcher, and one to send Lobaton out of town. The Rays will do whatever they can to make their team as strong as possible for next season. Jose Molina coming back does nothing to change that.