PORT CHARLOTTE -- Jose Molina sounds like a 36-year-old going on 26.
The Tampa Bay Rays can do that to people, especially with manager Joe Maddon making everyone feel he can beat Father Time and other any other limitations imaginable or unimaginable.
“I feel like I can play 180 games,” the Rays’ new acquisition said.
The catcher would have to make the World Series to get into that many.
Barring the unexpected, Maddon says Molina will be his catcher on Opening Day and put no limitations on how many times he will play. It was quite an endorsement for a guy who has averaged just 55 games during the past three years and never started more than half his team’s games in his 12 previous seasons.
“I have faith in our training staff that we can get him to play as much as he is physically capable of playing,” Maddon said. “I am not sure of the number of games, but the impact he will have on the other catchers and pitching staff will be significant.”
There are quite a few doubters, and Molina has used them as motivation.
“I really don’t care what people say. I haven’t played as much because I was a backup, not because of anything physical,” Molina said. “Whatever Joe wants I can give him. I am ready for 162 games. If he wants me to play 30, I will play 30. If he wants me to play 70, I will, or 120 or 150 or 180. Whatever he wants, I am ready.”
What Maddon and Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations, want and expect is an improvement in the catching position. They believe they have an upgrade in Molina over the departed Kelly Shoppach and John Jaso. If they can get Molina to exceed the career-high 81 starts he got in 2008 with the New York Yankees, they will be more than pleased.
“No one knows how much I can catch until the end of the year so meanwhile until the end of the year we can talk about it,” Molina said. “I’ve never had a chance to play 162 games, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. Somebody could get hurt and you have to be ready for 162.”
Molina should be an improvement offensively and defensively. Rays catchers hit a combined .194 last year, while Molina hit .281 with Toronto.
But the big improvement Molina brings may come defensively. His ability to widen the strike zone with his glove and throw out base stealers make him a pitcher’s delight.
Rays closer Kyle Farnsworth played with Molina when they were with the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees and couldn’t be happier to have him back. He said the strike zone gets a little bigger with Molina behind the plate.
“Catching is huge as far as controlling the running game and calling the game, and he really helps us there,” Farnsworth said. “He does a lot of those little things that kind of go overlooked and are very important. Things like the way he presents the ball to the umpire will definitely help us.”
Molina threw out 44 percent of would-be base stealers in 2008 and ’10, which ranked first in the American League both years, and his 40 percent career mark is fourth among active AL catchers. The Rays were particularly impressed with his ability to throw out runners on bad pitches and pull bad pitches into the strike zone to get the strike call.
In comparison, Schoppach has a 28.3 percent career mark for throwing out base stealers to rank 24th. Jaso threw out only 10 of 60 base stealers last year for a woeful 17 percent success rate.
Perhaps more than anything, Molina brings a set of intangibles that could prove valuable to a catching corps that is young and inexperienced and a strong pitching staff that should be even stronger with him.
“I hope I can be a mentor to the other catchers and can provide some tips that will make them better,” Molina said. “I am here for that, and at the same time here to win games and try to help take this team to the World Series. It’s awesome here. It’s a great group of guys and kids who love to play baseball.
“I like to think I am a guy who can teach you how to play the game the right way and show those young guys how to be winners. I think I have been doing it the right way and will continue to do it that way.”
Maddon and Molina go back to their days in Anaheim. They’ve stayed in touch through the years, and the manager couldn’t hide his excitement when he heard Molina was coming.
“He is going to help our young receivers in all aspects of the game. I don’t know how many games he will start, but there can be games he finishes. Either way he will have a big impact,” Maddon said.