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Squatter's Rights?

Angel pitchers swear by Molina, but his contract status and the rise of prospect Mathis threaten catcher's job security

March 14, 2004|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

TEMPE, Ariz. — It would be one thing if Bengie Molina were a mediocre catcher, a guy who struggled to gain the trust of his pitchers, who didn't throw well or block pitches in the dirt, who rarely came up with a clutch hit.

Then the speculation that Molina could be on his last legs as an Angel -- that the dual forces of his contract expiring after this season and hot prospect Jeff Mathis emerging as a legitimate replacement candidate could conspire against Molina -- would seem more valid.

But then the testimonials begin pouring in from Angel pitchers, and you wonder, why would anyone be so eager to usher Molina out the door?

"I haven't seen all the catchers in baseball, but I think we're very spoiled," left-hander Jarrod Washburn said. "In my opinion, he's one of the best defensive catchers in baseball.... He takes a lot of pride in studying hitters, pitchers, knowing everyone's game and going in with a solid game plan. There's not a whole lot of shaking off [signs] when we're working together.

"He makes our job a lot easier."

Added closer Troy Percival: "I can't tell you much about the National League, but in the American League, no one stands above him. He can catch and throw with anyone, he can block pitches, and he can get a big hit for you any day of the week. It seems [early in my career] we had a new catcher every year. To have that stability behind the plate is nice."

Still, speculation persists that Molina, 29, is closer to the end of his Angel career than in the prime of it. He is beginning the final year of a four-year contract that will pay him $1.9 million this season, and the Angels hold a $3-million option for 2005, which can be bought out for $100,000.

Mathis, a first-round pick in 2001, was recently rated the game's second-best catching prospect by Baseball America, and the 21-year-old is expected to reach triple A this season. Mathis could be ready for the big leagues by 2005.

"You hate to put a can't-miss tag on people, but he certainly has incredible talent," Angel Manager Mike Scioscia said of Mathis, who last season hit .323 with 11 home runs and 54 runs batted in in 98 games for Class-A Rancho Cucamonga and .284 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 24 games for double-A Arkansas.

"He's at a level now where you can project him as a terrific major leaguer. He has every tool you're looking for in a catcher."

Molina has heard the talk -- it's hard to ignore when so many are gushing about Mathis -- but he's not hearing footsteps.

"If the kid is good and they want to give him a chance, what can I do?" Molina said. "I wouldn't like it, but I would have to respect their decision. But until that happens, I'm not going to worry about any kid behind me. I'm going to look forward. If I keep doing good, somebody else will pick me up."

Ability and performance aren't issues with Molina. If there are any concerns about his long-term viability, they revolve around injuries. Molina has been slowed by leg and wrist injuries in the last three seasons, and his body type -- he's a stout 5 feet 11, 230 pounds -- requires extra work.

This spring has provided more ammunition for Molina skeptics: Sore hamstrings sidelined the catcher last week, but he is expected to return to exhibition play early this week.

To Angel General Manager Bill Stoneman, reports of Molina's possible demise are premature.

"Satchel Paige said you shouldn't look back and, hopefully, Bengie is focused on the present -- being as good as he can, working hard, staying in shape," Stoneman said. "He has a body you have to pay attention to, but no one outworked him in the training room last year. As long as he focuses on the same stuff, he's going to be fine and around for a long time. Remember, he's signed, and we have an option."

In other words, don't pencil Mathis into that 2005 Angel lineup and erase Molina from the picture just yet. The 6-foot, 180-pound Mathis may have raw tools superior to Molina's, but he has played only 279 minor league games and lacks the experience and the mental agility Molina has gained in 4 1/2 big league seasons, one in which he helped the Angels win the 2002 World Series.

And with a veteran pitching staff and a team that is expected to contend for the AL pennant for several years, the Angels are not about to leave their most important defensive position in the hands of an untested, unproven kid.

"Bengie has improved with that bat, but what he does calling the game every night is the most important thing," said Scioscia, the former Dodger catcher. "It's vital to us that he does that, and he's one of the best game callers in baseball right now. It's great that he throws and hits, but the real beauty of Bengie is the way he calls games and handles pitchers."

Pitch calling, Scioscia says, is usually the last phase of development for a catcher.

"And by the time a guy catches 400-500 games in the minor leagues, you hope he can gain the [mental] tools to apply to the game," he said. "In that regard, Mathis is still developing."

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