Molina eyes expanded role with Tampa Bay

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) — A career backup with two World Series rings, Jose Molina is excited about having an opportunity to become an everyday catcher with the Tampa Bay Rays.

At least as regular as you reasonably can expect at age 36.

The brother of a couple of other two-time World Series winners, Bengie and Yadier Molina, signed with the Rays this offseason. Manager Joe Maddon envisions a healthy “J-Mo” starting somewhere between 80 and 90 games as the Ray chase their fourth playoff berth in five years.

Molina says he preparing as if he’s going to play 162, even though he’s never appeared in more than 100 during parts of 12 seasons with the Cubs, Angels, Yankees and Blue Jays.

“I’m ready to catch 162 every year, not just this year. Every year. Because you never know. If the starting catcher gets hurt, you have to come in and be ready to do your job,” Molina said Tuesday, the first day of spring training for Tampa Bay’s pitchers and catchers.

Known more for his defensive skills than his offense, Molina started 44 games as a backup to Toronto rookie J.P. Arencibia while batting a career-best .281 with three homers and 15 RBIs.

He has been the toughest catcher to steal against in the majors over the past four seasons, throwing out 62 of 170 runners (36.5 percent). He was sixth-best a year ago when he threw out 12 of 36 for a 33.3 percent success rate that enticed the Rays, already one of baseball’s top defensive teams.

Maddon has known Molina since the manager’s days as the Angels’ bench coach. The Rays declined a $3.2 million option on incumbent starter Kelly Shoppach after losing in the divisional round of the playoffs in October and traded John Jaso to the Seattle Mariners the following month.

Molina signed a $1.8 million, one-year contract with the Rays on Nov. 28. Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos, who’ve played a combined 42 games in the majors, are competing for the backup job.

Molina won World Series rings with the Angels in 2002 and 2009 with the Yankees. Bengie also part of the Angels championship team in 2002 and won again with the San Francisco Giants in 2010. Yadier helped the St. Louis Cardinals win titles in 2006 and 2011, meaning one of the Molina brothers has won each of the past three World Series.

Overall, at least one of the brothers has played in seven of the past 10 postseasons.

The Rays pitching staff is eager to work with Molina, who’s continuing a tour of the AL East following stints with the Yankees from 2007 to 2009 and the Blue Jays the past two seasons.

“He’s got a lot of knowledge back there, a lot of innings back there. … He might be the best receiver in the game. I can’t wait to throw to him,” right-hander James Shields, a 16-game winner in 2011 said.

“From what I’ve heard from other players on other teams, his game-calling is superb. And from what I’ve seen (from the opposing dugout), his receiving is unreal,” Shields added. “He gets strikes that might not be strikes on a normal basis with other catchers. … He knows how to catch. Any time you put a Molina back there, you should be in good business.”

Tampa Bay’s recent success, winning two division titles and making the playoffs three of the past four seasons, was a factor in Molina’s decision to sign. So was a talented starting rotation and solid bullpen that are part of the reason the Rays believe they have an excellent chance of getting back to the postseason.

“Everybody in the league knows it’s a great pitching staff, and they’re not afraid to pitch. You start learning that more when you play 18 games against the same team,” Molina said, alluding to the time he’s spent in the AL East.

He’s just as eager to begin to get to know the starters and relievers are to work with him.

“I need to learn all of them. … That’s what spring training is for, to work with them, talk to them regarding what they like to do, what they expect, where they want me behind the plate,” Molina said. “Some guys want the catcher to be in the middle, other guys want you on the corners. I think just talking to them will be a good beginning.”

The catcher said he doesn’t have any preconceived notion of how many games he can — or will — play. He stressed that whatever Maddon decides is fine with him.

“The manager will do whatever he wants, and I will respect it,” said Molina, who hasn’t started consecutive games behind the plate since August 2010. “He got his way of thinking. I won’t change that. I can’ change that. I’ll be ready every day. If he puts me in the lineup every day, I’ll be there.”

Molina started 81 games for the Yankees in 2008, when he appeared in a career-high 100. Most of his playing time came while Jorge Posada was sidelined with a shoulder injury.

“I don’t think you want to push him much further than that because you don’t want to break the guy. I would say that’s a legitimate number, right around 80 to 90 games,” Maddon said, adding that he’s confident Molina will flourish in the role he figures to play in Tampa Bay.

“He’s played on some pretty good teams, caught some pretty good pitchers. I know how he operates. I know how much pride he takes in what he does back there. … One thing about him, even back in the day, he always wanted to be considered more of a regular, everyday player as opposed to a backup.”