“While the Red Sox have made contact with free-agent catcher Bengie Molina, they are not yet ready to move on him, according to major-league sources.
Molina, though, could grow more appealing, assuming he is in reasonable condition. He is strong fundamentally, a good game-caller and a veteran of four postseasons.”
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone considering a Molina-Red Sox union has been rumored for a few weeks now. While the Red Sox aren’t “ready to move on him” just yet, it’s only a matter of time before mutual interest becomes courting.
The Red Sox’s catching carousel began last fall when they decided not to match the Tigers’ four year $52M offer for Victor Martinez. Considering his age (32 years old), and relatively short shelf life as a catcher (now the Tigers full-time DH), the Red Sox were wise to avoid signing the former All-Star to a deal he couldn’t possibly justify through performance. Still, not re-signing him did come with some consequences: it left a gaping hole at a keystone position for the Red Sox.
After courting former Dodgers catcher Russell Martin for a few weeks in early January, the Red Sox decided to drop out of the bidding. While their reasons for bowing out were never disclosed, many believe they were scared off by his medical reports; most notably, the torn right hip labrum he suffered in early August. As we all know, he signed with the Yankees, and is mashing to the tune of a .395 wOBA and 1.3 fWAR.
Without any other reasonable options remaining on the free agent and trade markets, the Red Sox turned to former top prospect, Jarrod Saltalamachhia, in hopes he would finally realize his potential and seize the starting job. That hasn’t happened. Instead, he’s struggled both offensively (.231 wOBA, -0.2 WAR) and defensively to the point where he’s lost playing time to back-up catcher and team Captain Jason Varitek. To put Salty’s struggles in perspective, Varitek’s offensive struggles have been so severe; it’s tough justifying his presence in the lineup at all, let alone twice a week. Even with Varitek’s status as a near automatic out, Terry Francona continues to put him in the lineup over his supposed starter.
A few weeks ago, Fire Brand founder and editor, Evan Brunell, wrote an extensive article about the Red Sox’s catching situation. Within his piece, he included comments by Peter Gammons expressing Saltalamacchia had two weeks to prove himself before the Red Sox addressed the situation. Those comments were made on April 20th—21 days ago. With Salty continuing to struggle in all facets of the game, it appears the Molina discussions are, at the very least, the stepping off point for mitigating this issue.
While I applaud the front office’s desire to improve an area of deficiency, signing Molina is not the right way to make that improvement. Despite his reputation, many of his defensive skills (i.e. lateral movement, blocking pitches, throwing out base runners) have eroded. Don’t believe me? Rosenthal called Molina “strong fundamentally.” When was the last time anyone talked about a player’s fundamentals without using it as code for something less than savory? Let’s use it in a sentence: “Derek Jeter is strong fundamentally on defense. While he doesn’t have great lateral movement and range, he’ll field all of the balls hit directly at him.” See what I mean? Apparently, the term “game manager” is reserved for NFL quarterbacks like Kerry Collins and Trent Dilfer. Otherwise, Rosenthal probably would’ve thrown that one out there as well.
Another issue with Bengie Molina is that his offensive skill set has been widely overrated for years. While he’s always displayed good power, he’s shown very little in terms of patience and on-base abilities. To put things simply, he’s an out machine whose career OBP is .307. That’s difficult enough to swallow when a young player in his late 20s, hitting 30-35 home runs, produces that kind of number; when a player of Molina’s age and skill set does it, it’s completely unacceptable. To complicate matters further, Molina’s power has disintegrated to the point where we probably can’t consider it to be a skill in his repertoire. Last season between the Giants and Rangers, he hit five home runs (18 extra base hits in all) in 416 plate appearances. Then, once you factor in that he hasn’t posted a wOBA exceeding the league average since 2006 (and only twice in his 11+ year career), and is amongthe slowest base runner in the history of the game*, you realize that you’re looking at a below replacement level player who’s much more likely to decline further than improve.
* Honestly, I think the Statue of Liberty (or Mike Lowell) could beat him in a foot race.
If he signs with the Red Sox, will he really be an upgrade over their current situation? Probably not. At best, he’ll be a bandage; a make over. We might feel better about the situation after signing him, but the team won’t be any better off having him on it.
So who should they target instead? For starters, the Pirates have two starting quality catchers in Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder. Considering the Pirates’ are in perpetual rebuilding mode, chances are they’ll be willing to unload one of them (or even both) at the July 31st trading deadline. While both are talented players, neither one is an All-Star, and shouldn’t command big time prospects in return. Then again, everyone in their uncle knows the Red Sox need a catcher. As a result Pirates GM Neal Huntington will probably try to get the Red Sox to slightly overpay.
Another option is A.J. Pierzynski. Like Molina, Pierzynski has a lot of the same issues, but to a lesser degree. If the White Sox continue to tumble further away from the AL Central division lead, they could attempt to deal the 34-year old catcher (provided he waves his 10-5 no-trade rights).While he’s a bit of an instigator, he’s commanded the respect of the White Sox staff. If he can provide acceptable offensive production (~.3oo wOBA) and command the respect of the Red Sox pitching staff, he could be a decent short-term replacement.
Chris Iannetta of the Rockies is another possibility, but they seem unwilling to drop their unrealistically high price for the young power hitter. If they do, expect the Red Sox pounce. Other names that could be floated are the Rangers’ Mike Napoli (who’s questionable defensively and probably should remain a 1B/DH type), and Ivan Rodriguez (who is on Molina level at this point), but I don’t see either as likely trade candidates to take over every day catching duties.
The most unfortunate aspect of this whole situation is that they don’t have any young catching help in the minors that’s ready to help the club right now. Michael McKendry is widely considered to be a fringe prospect, and Luis Exposito, Ryan Lavarnway, and Tim Federowicz need a lot of seasoning before they’re ready to assume the everyday duties behind the dish. All things considered, I’m of the that opinion that unless the Red Sox can sign or trade for a bonifide improvement (and Molina does not qualify), the Red Sox would be better off staying with the team they have at their disposal. While that might sound sexy, it’s probably prudent to allow the trade market develop and strike just before the trading deadline.