C atcher Jose Molina has been primarily a backup in his big-league career, starting half his team's games once in 12 seasons.
But after appearing in a career-high 102 games last season for Tampa Bay, including 80 starts, Molina will likely again shoulder a lion's share of the responsibility.
Manager Joe Maddon said he'd like to use that same template — a two-thirds game involvement — for the 37-year-old Molina, whose $1.8 million option was picked up in October.
For all the criticism Molina drew, from passed balls to his performance at the plate (.223 batting average), Maddon believes he was playing his best toward the end of the season, when he was the team's just-about-everyday catcher.
Molina wasn't brought in for his offensive prowess, though he had a career-high eight home runs and 32 RBIs last year and hit .325 in September. For Molina, it always has been about his ability to handle a pitching staff, control the running game and prevent runs.
Maddon said as Molina got more comfortable with his new team, those skills became more evident, and he believes the veteran can be a "difference-maker."
"He dealt with a lot of criticism, but I'll tell you what, by the end of the season, this guy was playing really well," Maddon said. "He might not have the same ability he once had, but when it comes down to dissecting the game or receiving the ball, and then he started to throw really well. He did a lot of stuff over the last couple of months of the season at a very high standard and level."
The question: Who will be the second part of the catching tandem? Barring another offseason move, it looks like Chris Gimenez, 30, will get a chance to compete with Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos.
With Chirinos missing the season due to a concussion suffered in spring training, and Lobaton also battling injuries and offensive inconsistency, Gimenez got a chance to emerge from a nonroster invitee in spring to racking up a career-high 31 starts.
Gimenez started slowly, hitting .191 before getting sent to Triple A in late May. But he said the demotion was the best thing to happen, as for the first time in four years he got to play on an everyday basis, allowing him to tweak his approach to hitting to the opposite field.
That showed up in a September callup, when Gimenez garnered confidence by playing in 18 games in a pennant race and hitting over .400, including a winning single against the Yankees. He finished at .260, including .357 (20-for-56) against lefties, fifth best in the American League and second best among AL catchers with as many or more at-bats.
"He's a great makeup guy, outstanding," Maddon said. "He goes down to the minor leagues and reinvents himself on the right side of the field. Defensively speaking, you know that pitchers love to throw to him. He's a total gamer, a strong kid, too. He did a great job, an absolutely fabulous job."
It'll be interesting to see how Chirinos bounces back from a lost year, and if Lobaton, who is out of minor-league options, finally can put together that offensive ability he has shown in the minors. But Gimenez, who has an option remaining, would love a shot.
"If they want me back, I'd be delighted to come back," Gimenez said. "I'd never leave if they would let me."
HELPING HAND: OF Sam Fuld is the honorary chairman for the Flight for a Cure Tampa Bay Golf Classic on Friday at Belleair Country Club, benefiting the juvenile diabetes research foundation (flightforacure.org). … OF Matt Joyce will hold his annual baseball camp Jan. 20 at North Brandon Little League, from 9 a.m.-2 p.m., with proceeds going to the Little League. It's $100 per child (ages 6 to 13), registration online at nbll.org. Joyce donated $10,000 last year.
RAYS RUMBLINGS: Though the team is still looking for a couple of relievers and a hitter or two, executive VP Andrew Friedman said it's not close to any deals. … Fox's Sun Sports will re-air memorable 2012 Rays games every Tuesday at noon for eight weeks, starting Tuesday with a replay of their opening day victory over the Yankees.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]