PORT CHARLOTTE — The Rays have been watching Jose Molina for years.
The pitchers would look on enviously from the bench, admiring how he set up and caught the ball, his impressive game-calling, the way he shut down potential base-stealers and the remarkable job he did in getting borderline-at-best pitches called strikes. It was pretty obvious, starter James Shields said, "he might be the best receiver in the game."
Standing in the batter's box, Evan Longoria saw it a different way. "I've told him that I actually hate being a hitter against him," Longoria said, "because he just gets so many strikes."
Tuesday, the Rays got their first look at what it's like having Molina on their side. And though it was only the first pitchers-and-catchers workout of the spring, they couldn't help but be even more impressed.
From the meticulous way he prepared and checked his new blue-colored gear to how he talked to the pitchers before, during and after catching their bullpen sessions to the time he spent and knowledge he shared with young proteges Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos.
"J-Mo may be the one thing that we've kind of been missing," manager Joe Maddon said. "Not to denigrate — I thought (Kelly Shoppach) did a really good job behind the plate last year — but J-Mo just brings a little bit more of an edge back there. … I know how he operates. I know how much pride he takes in what he does back there."
Molina's effectiveness is well-known and documented, from stats that show he has been the toughest catcher in the majors to steal against over the past four years by throwing out 36.5 percent of runners and that the 3.94 ERA pitchers have with him behind the plate is fifth best of all active catchers (with 500 games) to studies that seek to quantify the impact of his uncanny pitch framing, with Baseball Prospectus estimating that over a full season he could save his team a major-league-most 35 runs.
"I do my job, that's all," Molina said.
But what Molina hasn't done is play on more than an occasional basis. And that's why it's not possible to say exactly how much impact he will have on the Rays, especially since he turns 37 in June.
Unlike older brother Bengie, who retired after spending 2010 with San Francisco and Texas, and younger brother Yadier, the three-time All-Star in St. Louis, Jose Molina has never been an everyday player. Aside from 2008, when he started 81 games (and played in 16 others) for the Yankees, he has averaged 50 starts (and 59 appearances) over his eight other full big-league seasons, also with the Angels and Blue Jays. He hasn't started back-to-back games behind the plate since August 2010.
Maddon said a "legit number" of starts would be 80-90, with the idea Molina could be a defensive replacement in other games, with an eye toward maximizing the matchups offensively and defensively. Molina said he'll be ready every day and do whatever Maddon — a coach with the Angels when Jose and Bengie played there — asks.
The lack of opportunity has never been a source of frustration or envy, Molina said, especially not within the family. "I've never felt that way about my brothers or any other catchers," he said.
More so, he takes pride in the amazing accomplishment that the three sons of a factory worker — Benjamin Sr. — in Bayamon, Puerto Rico all made the major leagues as catchers, and each with two World Series rings. "It's great, it's awesome, it's hard to believe it but it's true," Jose said.
"They're they catching Molinas," Maddon said.
The combination of skills, effort, knowledge, personality and pride makes Molina a good fit for the Rays.
"I can't wait to throw to him," Shields said. "Anytime you put a Molina back there, you should be in good business."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]