Molina relieved to make club as backup
Veteran to spell Buck behind plate; Chavez to Triple-A
CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Jose Molina has a pair of World Series rings, detailed knowledge of the American League East and a reputation for being a great mentor for young pitchers. Even with that resume, Molina was not sure he would earn the backup catching job with the Blue Jays this spring.
"I was worried about their decision -- what they wanted to do," Molina said. "I've been in this business a long time, and I've seen many, many things happen. It was just worrying about their decision -- not about what I was capable of doing."
On Wednesday, Molina was officially handed the backup catching responsibilities behind starting catcher John Buck. Raul Chavez -- Molina's competition for the job -- was reassigned to Minor League camp and will open this season with Triple-A Las Vegas. Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said the decision to keep Molina in the fold boiled down to the catchers' contractual situations in the end.
The Jays wanted to maintain solid depth behind the plate, and keeping Molina on as the backup was the best way to do that. Molina was signed to a non-guaranteed Major League contract shortly before camp opened, earning him a place on the 40-man roster. Chavez was in camp on a Minor League deal. Had Toronto opted to hand the backup role to Chavez, the team likely would have lost Molina.
"If Molina leaves, he's not going to go to the Minor Leagues," Gaston said. "He probably could go somewhere else. Chavez, he's got a chance to go play in the Minor Leagues for us, and if something happens, we have him as a backup. If he would've went out there and really tore the cover off the ball, then that would have certainly made a difference with him.
"Since he didn't do that, and Molina played a little bit better than he did, that's the way things went down."
It's similar to the scenario that the 37-year-old Chavez ran into a year ago with the Jays. Chavez outperformed Michael Barrett during Spring Training, but Barrett broke camp with the Jays and Chavez -- signed to a Minor League deal then, too -- headed to Triple-A. Barrett was later lost to injury and Chavez appeared in 52 games for Toronto.
To begin this season, Chavez will serve as the backup to top catching prospect J.P. Arencibia with Las Vegas. The Jays believe Arencibia is close to being ready for the big leagues, but the team does not want to encounter a situation where it is forced to promote the young backstop out of necessity. Toronto wants Arencibia to continue with his development before joining the Jays in a regular role.
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"We want this kid to go down there and have a great year," Gaston said. "We want him to get up here as soon as he can. We all know he can hit a bit, but we want him to go down and certainly work on his catching, too -- game calling, defense. Chavez is going to be down there, but the kid is going to play."
There is always the chance that Arencibia could join the Blue Jays at some point this season. Until then, though, Toronto's relatively young pitching staff has a pair of veteran catchers in Buck and Molina, who could both be eligible for free agency next winter. As Toronto enters an important transitional phase, the club wants to emphasize development in as many ways as it can.
Molina takes pride in being a part of that.
"This was just a chance to help a young staff know how to win," Molina said, "to teach them the right way to pitch, teach them how to be successful on this level. I think I've done that for my past 10 years. To me, I would say I took it as a challenge for me. It's something that I was expecting to see, and I'm seeing it right now -- I know why I chose here. There are good pitchers here and good talent here."
Molina, 34, spent parts of the past three seasons with the Yankees, and was the preferred catcher of A.J. Burnett during the Yankees' run to the World Series last season. Prior to playing with the Yanks, Molina suited up for the Angels for parts of seven years, winning a World Series with them in 2002.
In his decade behind the plate in the big leagues, Molina has become known for his game calling and defensive skills more than anything else. As Molina has made his way through the Jays' arms this spring, learning their tendencies and routines, the pitchers have come to appreciate working with the veteran catcher.
"It's awesome when you've got that caliber of catcher," lefty Ricky Romero said. "He's been to the World Series and been successful. You hear that pitchers like throwing to him, and it's a good feeling to have a guy like that, especially for us young guys. He's been around the league for a while. He knows hitters, probably better than most of the pitchers that we have on the staff now."
The Jays also have an experienced veteran in Chavez, and that is why Molina was not sure he was a lock to make the Opening Day roster.
"It's just a relief to know," Molina said. "I'm thankful it went my way. Not taking anything away from Raul. He's a great guy and a great catcher, too. I think he played well here last year -- very well, from what I hear. But it's their decision, it's not mine. It's probably one of the toughest decisions that we all wanted to hear, or didn't want to hear.
"But it had to come to this. From the first day, I said it: 'I'm here to help the team win games and help the young staff to develop.' I will do that. When you're competing, there's always a doubt in your mind of what they're going to do, but not a doubt in my mind what I can do."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.