ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays appear to have crossed one thing off their offseason checklist, as they're reportedly close to a deal with free agent C Jose Molina.
If and when the deal becomes official, possibly this week, it's a move that would make sense for Tampa Bay.
Molina, 36, has been a backup primarily during his 12-year career, but he fits well with the kind of catching platoon the Rays desire. He's very strong defensively, ranking fourth among active catchers by throwing out 40 percent of attempted basestealers. He handles pitching staffs well, which is important with the Rays' prized rotation. Molina has a wealth of experience in the American League East, having played for the Yankees and Blue Jays the past five years, and could be a valuable mentor for rookies Jose Lobaton and Robinson Chirinos. He has won two World Series, one with Anaheim in 2002 along with Rays manager Joe Maddon, who is a big fan.
And considering that Molina made just $1.2 million last year in Toronto, he falls in Tampa Bay's price range. Foxsports.com reported the discussed Molina deal would be for one year plus an option for 2013. The Rays declined C Kelly Shoppach's $3.2 million option for next season, and though both sides were open for a reunion, a signing of the right-handed hitting Molina would end that.
Like Shoppach, Molina isn't a big offensive threat (his career high is six homers), but he's coming off a strong season in which he hit .281 for Toronto in 55 games; Shoppach hit .176 last year. The most games Molina has started in a season is 81 (in 2008 with the Yankees), but executive VP Andrew Friedman said early last week it was more likely the Rays would go with a platoon situation anyway.
"It's just a demanding position," Friedman said. "Basically a 100-60/62 (split). Who knows? We might get into a situation 80-80. It depends on the players involved."
The Rays' other options are Lobaton, whom they like but who was hampered by a knee sprain and hit .118 in 15 games last season; Chirinos, who showed flashes but likely needs more minor-league time; and John Jaso, who took a step back last year.
The signing of Molina wouldn't be splashy, but it could be a solid one. Recent history has shown it doesn't hurt to have a Molina brother on your roster, as they've played for the past three World Series champions (Jose with the Yankees in 2009, Bengie with the Giants and Rangers in 2010 and Yadier with the Cardinals last season).
PITCHING IN: It was a big week for the Rays rotation, with RHP Jeremy Hellickson winning American League rookie of the year Monday and RHP James Shields finishing third in the AL Cy Young voting Tuesday. And though there will be speculation all offseason that the Rays will trade from their surplus of starting pitching, Friedman maintained that's not a foregone conclusion.
"It's something that I expect that we'll get a lot of inquiries," Friedman said. "It's not something that we're flippant about. We're not sitting in our internal meetings and talking about how we have too much starting pitching. Obviously if someone puts something forward that's compelling, we owe it to everyone to talk through it. But I wouldn't necessarily count on it."
RAYS RUMBLINGS: The Rays are still looking at options at first base and DH as well as finding a couple of relievers. … The Rays remain interested in talking with DH Johnny Damon and 1B Casey Kotchman, and potentially bringing them back: "They are very prominent in our discussions right now as we're going through things," Friedman said. "I expect that will continue." … According to Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes, ex-Rays LHP Scott Kazmir will pitch in the Dominican Winter League with the Escogido Lions.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.