02/09/06 12:56 PM ET
Jays officially welcome Molina
Free agent catcher is Toronto's third major offseason signing
By Jordan Bastian / MLB.com
Molina, 31, agreed to a one-year, $4.5 million deal on Monday with a mutual option worth $7.5 million for 2007. The signing came just 11 days before Toronto's pitchers and catchers were to report to Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla.
Rumors about obtaining the free agent swirled around Toronto over the past month as the number of teams in the race for Molina appeared to shrink. The Blue Jays had an offer on the table for Molina, who accepted the contract with the offseason nearing its close. Despite the long process, Molina said it was worth the wait.
"I'm very excited to be here," Molina said. "I can't even put it into words. These guys have done a great job in putting a team together that's going to win. When we reached an agreement, I was very excited. It was a long wait, but at the same time, this all happened for a reason."
Molina, who becomes the No. 1 option behind the plate ahead of Gregg Zaun, is the third major free agent to sign with the Blue Jays this offseason. Toronto inked All-Star closer B.J. Ryan and pitcher A.J. Burnett earlier this winter. The Jays were also major players in the trade market, acquiring third baseman Troy Glaus from Arizona and first baseman Lyle Overbay from Milwaukee.
"This really caps off for us a great offseason in acquiring new talent for the ballclub," said Blue Jays president and CEO Paul Godfrey. "I really think this ballclub is a heck of a lot stronger now than at the closing game last year. A great deal of credit for that has to go to [Toronto general manager] J.P. Ricciardi."
Adding Molina brings the team's payroll up to $75 million, the limit set for the upcoming season. Ricciardi said the team was comfortable with the personnel it had before signing Molina, but adding him was an unexpected surprise.
"We never thought that a guy like Bengie would be available this late in the [offseason]," Ricciardi said. "It was something that just evolved. From talking to him, I know that winning is the most important thing, as it is for this organization."
With Spring Training approaching fast and the payroll reaching its ceiling, the signing of Molina is likely the last move by Toronto before the season begins. But that doesn't mean the Jays wouldn't consider tweaking their roster if they were in contention later this year.
"I've said all along that the payroll for this year was $75 million, and we've spent that money as of this time," Godfrey said. "I mean, if it comes down to July and we're in the hunt and it requires a missing piece, I know where [owner] Mr. [Ted] Rogers is, and I'll have a talk with him."
Molina is coming off a career year at the plate. He set personal highs in home runs (15), batting average (.295), on-base percentage (.336) and slugging percentage (.446) in 2005. Molina led all American League hitters with a .393 average against left-handed pitchers and caught 105 games, his highest mark since 2003.
Zaun will be pushed into a reserve role. The switch-hitter is also coming off one of his best years offensively. He had career highs in home runs (11), RBIs (61), runs (61) and walks (73). Zaun led the Jays in walks and was second on the team with a .355 on-base percentage.
"[Zaun has] been around, and he's a competitor, and he's worked hard to get where he's at," said Ricciardi, who spoke with Zaun about signing Molina. "Obviously, he's not excited about it, but he said he'll do anything we ask him to do.
"It's a situation where we feel we're stronger having both of these guys as opposed to having just one. But we didn't sign [Molina] here to play just 20 games."
Molina's brothers Jose and Yadier catch for the Angels and Cardinals, respectively. Molina said he didn't start learning to catch until he was 17 years old, when he first joined the Angels organization.
"It was a very competitive family at that time," Molina said. "They were catchers since they were kids. They helped me out with what I needed at that point, and now they say I help them out."
Molina earned AL Gold Glove Awards in 2002 and 2003 with the Angels and also was a part of the 2002 Anaheim team that defeated San Francisco in the World Series. Toronto will be the only other organization he has played for. The Angels never got into any discussion with Molina about remaining in California, so playing elsewhere was something he said he was prepared to do.
"I had my mindset ready not to be there this year," Molina said. "I was ready for whatever they were going to do, and I had a feeling that they weren't going to sign me. That was one of the things that really hurt me after spending all those years with them -- that they never even gave me a call. They never contacted me. That's the only thing that hurt me. Other than that, I was ready for it."
Angels spokesman Tim Mead told The Associated Press that Molina "was an integral part of the success of this organization for the last several years and everyone involved in this organization wishes him nothing but the very best.
"We make business decisions and decisions based on personnel. Everyone here thinks very fondly of Bengie and continues to do so."
The Dodgers, Orioles and Mets were rumored to be potential suitors for Molina this offseason. The Mets extended an offer, but when the catcher went to begin negotiations, he said that his representatives had a hard time getting into any detailed discussion with New York. Molina said the rumor that he turned down an offer from the Mets wasn't true.
"There were a couple of other teams that were very interested in me, but I didn't see it as a good situation like I did here," Molina said. "I took a lot less money to come over here for a reason, and that's to win. I thought these guys made a great effort to put a good team on the field."
Jordan Bastian is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.