Well, the rumours turned out to be true; Bengie Molina is now officially a Blue Jay. Today, it was announced that he signed a one-year, $4.5 million contract with a mutual option for 2007. If the option is exercised, he'll be paid $7.5 million in 2007. If not, he'll receive a $500,000 buyout and become a free agent. That means the Blue Jays have committed a minimum of $5 million to acquire Molina.
To be honest, there's not much to like about this signing. On the other hand, there really isn't much to hate. Unless the money spent on Molina prevents the Blue Jays from adding salary during a potential playoff run, I don't have any issues with the terms of the contract. And excluding Roger Clemens, who's unlikely to sign with Toronto, the case could be made that Molina was the best available free agent left on the market.
My concern with this signing, however, is that I don't think it really improves the team all that much. The roster is much weaker at positions like right field and shortstop, where Alexis Rios and Russ Adams were well below league average last season. Additionally, this signing almost certainly signifies the end of Guillermo Quiroz's tenure with the organization. The team has used up all of his minor league options, so he'll likely be snatched off waivers by a team with space on its roster, like the Marlins. Although, with Gregg Zaun and Jason Phillips already on the roster, he would've been fortunate to even make the team before the acquisition of Molina.
Considering the amount he signed for and his reputation as a proficient catcher, Molina will begin the season as the everyday catcher. But is he that much better than Zaun, if at all?
It must be noted that Molina had a disadvantage in terms of park effects. Angel Stadium is considered a slight pitcher's park, whereas the Rogers Centre is considered a slight hitter's park.
Molina holds a slight edge in OPS, but it's heavily dependent on his slugging percentage. Conversely, Zaun's significantly higher OBP can be attributed to his high walk rate. Molina's OBP, on the other hand, is extremely dependent on his batting average, which tends to fluctuate much more than a player's walk rate. In the end, Zaun's ability to get on base helped lead to 65 RC (runs created) in 2005, while Molina totaled 53.
In his career, Molina has performed much better against left-handed pitching than right-handed pitching. In the past three season, he's posted an .889 OPS against the former and only a .692 OPS versus the latter. Zaun, on the other hand, has performed almost identically against either (.727 vs. lefties; .728 vs. righties). As a result, it would be advantageous for the Blue Jays to platoon the two. However, since Zaun would receive more at-bats under that scenario, the likelihood of it occurring is almost nil.
When it comes to baserunning ability, neither Molina nor Zaun draws comparisons to Carlos Beltran. Nonetheless, there is quite some disparity between the two. With some help from the 2006 Bill James Handbook, let's see how they fared during the past year.
Last year, Zaun was on first base 27 times when a single was hit, and he was 6-for-27 making it to third. He was on second when a single was hit 12 times, and he was 5-for-12 making it to home plate. Finally, he was on first base when a double was hit 6 times, and he was 0-for-6 scoring on those. Altogether, he was 11-for-45 when given the opportunity to take an extra base on a teammate's hit. In addition, he stole two bases and was thrown out three times. Evidently, he's not a very gifted baserunner. But as we shall see, his baserunning ability is leaps and bounds ahead of Molina's.
In 2005, Molina was on first base 19 times when a single was hit, and he was 1-for-19 making it to third. He was on second when a single was hit 16 times, and he 2-for-16 making it to home plate. He was on first base when a double was hit twice, and he was 0-for-2 scoring on those. Altogether, he was 3-for-37 when given the opportunity to take an extra base on a teammate's hit. As a result, his overall scoring percentage was 8% compared to Zaun's 24%. In addition, Molina's ability to steal bases was worse, as evidenced by his one stolen base in five attempts.
In terms of fielding, Molina's been well-regarded throughout his career. Last season, he posted a .996 fielding percentage due to only three errors. Zaun posted a .990 fielding percentage on eight errors. That's somewhat misleading, however. After all, Molina (10) had twice as many passed balls as Zaun (5).
In 2005, Molina threw out 20 would-be basestealers on 84 attempts (29%). Zaun, in comparison, threw out 21 would-be basestealers on 114 attempts (19%).
Also of note is that Molina posted a catcher's ERA (CERA) of 3.55 in 2005. That is to say, Angels pitchers posted a 3.55 ERA while Molina was playing behind the plate. Zaun's CERA of 3.79 was slightly higher. However, these numbers must be put into context. Since they played for different teams and played in different parks, they cannot be directly compared. In order to gain even a little insight into their game-calling abilities, it would make more sense to compare each player's CERA to his backup's. In this scenario, Zaun clearly has the edge. While Bengie Molina posted a CERA of 3.55, his backup, Jose Molina, posted a slightly higher CERA of 3.65. On the other hand, Zaun's CERA (3.79) was much lower than the 4.85 CERA his backup, Ken Huckaby, posted in 2005.
In the end, the Blue Jays paid $5 million for someone who is very comparable to the much cheaper catcher they already had. And in a hypothetical world where egos aren't bruised and reason is paramount, manager John Gibbons would implement a platoon in order to maximize production. However, it's more likely that Molina will log 120 games or so, with Zaun likely to appear in the rest. Zaun will prove to be a capable backup, and might even play some DH when injuries inevitably crop up.
Since this is a one-year deal, I'm not all that opposed to it. Although I don't find it to be a particularly wise move, its risks are minimal. An additional bonus is that the Blue Jays will obtain two compensatory draft picks should Molina leave as a free agent following the season.