© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Although the Giants are seeking pitching, they beefed up their battery Wednesday by signing veteran free-agent catcher Bengie Molina to a three-year deal worth $16 million.
San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean said the club wanted backstop security considering the iffy status of catcher Mike Matheny, who missed half of 2006 with post-concussion symptoms and had final medical tests Wednesday to determine his future.
"It was a step forward for us," said Sabean of Molina's signing. "We've talked to Mike and his agent at length, so this is not coming as a surprise. We'll await final word, but we needed a frontline catcher."
Sabean noted that while rookie Eliezer Alfonzo did well last year as the starter, he isn't experienced enough to be the No. 1 catcher for 2007.
The 32-year-old Molina, a two-time Gold Glover, hit .283 with a career-high 19 homers and 57 RBIs for the Toronto Blue Jays last season, and despite indications his defensive ability has slipped a bit, Sabean called the veteran the best catcher on the free-agent market.
"The chance to get somebody with experience and the ability to drive in runs was very attractive," said Sabean, saying all reports on Molina -- offensively and defensively -- were good."
The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Molina, oldest of three brothers catching in the Major Leagues -- Jose with the Angels and Yadier with St. Louis -- boasts a .275 lifetime batting average and .994 career fielding percentage, fourth highest among active backstops.
The seven-year veteran will receive $4 million in 2007, plus $6 million in 2008 and in 2009.
Molina said Wednesday night he's anxious for Spring Training to start and to learn the pitching nuances of the Giants' young hurlers.
"I'm excited about being part of that organization -- so big and so tremendously famous," he said. "I'll just do my little part and see what happens."
Molina said reports of eroding defensive skills are false, explaining his throwing time to second base (1.8 to 1.9 seconds) is identical to his Gold Glove seasons with the Angels in 2002 and 2003, and that often it was pitchers' lack of holding runners on that lowered his stats.
Molina certainly isn't shy about what he brings to the Giants.
"My mind is still the same, I've always been able to catch great games, I have a great baseball mind and being in tune with starters and relievers during my career," he said.
Likewise, Sabean was enthuastic about the signing.
"It's an important position," said Sabean of Molina's role, "especially with the young pitching staff and what we'll do with name recognition and his background. It gives us a comfort level. He is a clutch hitter."
Sabean did praise Alfonzo's efforts last season after being called up from Double-A Connecticut to start after Matheny suffered a severe foul tip to the head in late May at Florida, costing him the season.
"His efforts were above and beyond the call of duty," said Sabean.
Alfonzo hit .266 overall, but batted near the .300 level for several months before tailing off. He showed steadily improving defensive skills, and the plan for 2007 is for him to play enough to maintain his talents while keeping Molina fresh.
Regarding the probable loss of Matheny, who struggled with vision problems and wooziness far into the offseason, Sabean said he takes the news hard.
"I'm sick to my stomach," said the GM. "It's gut-wrenching. We all know Mike and we just hope the good Lord figures out what this means for him. If there's light at the end of the tunnel, then we'll have two great catchers. We just hope he'll be all right."
Sabean said he talked to Matheny about the future if he must retire and that "there were some ideas floated" concerning working with the club in some capacity.
Molina said the Yankees, Phillies and Toronto were interested in his services, but the security of San Francisco's three-year offer and starting role proved too tempting.
On other fronts, chances of the Giants acquiring A's star Barry Zito seem slim, with Texas and the Yankees among clubs expected to offer the left-hander about $100 million for six years.
The Giants seem willing to reach that monetary level, but they've been rebuffed with similar packages offered to high-profile players Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano so far.
While still negotiating with slugger Barry Bonds, who surprisingly walked into this Disney Resort hotel Wednesday morning with agent Jeff Borris, Sabean has also talked with Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin about outfielder Geoff Jenkins.
Jenkins is a nine-year veteran, all with the Brewers. He hit .271 with 17 homers and 70 RBIs this season. He's seen as primarily a safety net in case Bonds is not re-signed, but would add great experience to the outfield depth.
Meantime, it appears another possible deal has dissolved.
San Francisco was also after Toronto free agent Ted Lilly, but the Chicago Cubs offered a multiyear deal for about $55 million and the Yankees have entered negotiations for the southpaw. The Giants are probably out of the running there and have turned their attention to Zito while also eyeing St. Louis free-agent pitcher Jeff Suppan.
Florida is mildly interested in reacquiring closer Armando Benitez, who saved 47 games for the Marlins in 2004, and the Giants are willing to eat most of the veteran's final contract year.
The Marlins do have other closer candidates, however.
In addition to a major hamstring injury two seasons ago and season-ending knee arthritis in 2006, Benitez was a disruptive clubhouse figure. In two partial campaigns, he saved 36 games.