Commentary

Get off the bus, Gustavo Molina

Journeyman might not be going anywhere, except Yankee Stadium as backup catcher

Updated: March 26, 2011, 1:57 PM ET
By Wallace Matthews | ESPNNewYork.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The second-best catcher on the New York Yankees' roster is still walking around with a plastic boot protecting his broken left foot.

Joe Girardi admitted as much Friday afternoon, when, in the course of discussing his backup catcher competition, the manager ruefully observed, "Cervy was having a great spring. You look at Cervy as the guy we're missing."

Cervy, of course, is Francisco Cervelli, who at the beginning of camp was the Yankee least likely to hold on to his job but now, six days before Opening Day, is the one Yankee no one has been able to displace.

This, in spite of not having played since March 2 after fouling a ball off his left foot, resulting in a fracture just behind the toes.

Even though Cervelli was batting .600 at the time, his loss was in some ways considered just a shortcut to the inevitable, since he certainly would be displaced by one of the two hot shots in camp, Jesus Montero or Austin Romine.

[+] EnlargeGustavo Molina
Kim Klement/US PresswireGustavo Molina won't wow you with his bat; his value is on defense.

(After 13 seasons as the starting catcher, Jorge Posada, of course, is now considered a full-time designated hitter by the Yankees and is not even being considered as the backup.)

Meanwhile, there was a fourth catcher in camp, a guy who, unlike Montero or Romine, had actually caught in the major leagues, however briefly, and had a reputation as a solid backstop, however obscure.

No one has paid much attention to Gustavo Molina this camp, especially since most of his appearances have come at the end of games, after the regulars have departed and only the die-hards are still paying attention.

But the manager was paying attention.

On Thursday, when Girardi sent Molina across the street to the minor league complex in place of Montero to catch Freddy Garcia against the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, no one thought much of it, except to surmise that the manager wanted to give Montero a day off.

Now, it looks as if Molina is the one who will be given days off, approximately five a week with the Yankees, while Montero will be back to catching a full slate of games for the Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre Yankees.

Not since Forego came from a quarter-mile off the pace to win the 1976 Marlboro Cup has a guy closed on a field quicker than Gustavo Molina made up ground on this one.

On Friday afternoon, the same day the Yankees welcomed Kevin Millwood, bade farewell to Sergio Mitre and added another body, that of Chris Dickerson, to their store of reserve outfielders, no bit of news was more stunning than that suddenly, the front-runner for the backup catcher's job appears to be none other than Gustavo Molina.

"He's a guy we're looking at," Girardi said. "Molina does have big league experience. We've given the young kids a lot of looks, and we're giving Molina some looks now, too, so that we know we feel like we're making the right decision."

As always, you had to parse the manager's statements carefully -- or, as he likes to put it, read between the lines -- to understand this new reality, but after some effort, it became as clear as day: Neither Montero nor Romine has progressed enough behind the plate for the Yankees to feel comfortable sending either out there in a real game even once a week.

This becomes particularly important when you consider that Russell Martin, the new No. 1 catcher, caught only 91 games last year due to injuries.

And -- and this is especially surprising in Montero's case -- neither has hit nearly enough to make anyone forget their defensive shortcomings.

"With Cervy going down, you have two young kids that you really consider as everyday players and prospects," Girardi said. "You want them to play every day. We want to be sure we're making the right decision, what's right for everyone, the team, these young guys' careers. These are kids that have only caught every day one year. The determination is, do you want to take them out of that for a month, a month and a half, and retard their development a little bit? That's a decision that we have to make, or do you want to go with a veteran guy that has caught in the big leagues and knows how to do it."

So, reading between the lines, it sounds as if Molina's chances to make the team have gotten better in the past few days?

Girardi: "That's a good observation."

Translation: Montero and Romine, the can't-miss kids, somehow managed to. The Yankees have determined they both need more time in the minors. And by comparison, Molina, who has caught 23 games in the major leagues for four teams, including two with the Mets in 2008, qualifies as a veteran. By the way, he is not related to the other Molinas, Bengie, Jose and Yadier , the acknowledged First Family of major league defensive catchers.

"I feel good, just trying to win a place as a backup catcher, trying my best to stay on the team," Montero said. "Sometimes you got to wait for good things. It was a great opportunity, and whatever they decide, I'm going to continue to work hard."

"Nobody has told me anything," Gustavo Molina said. "But if you're here, you're here for a reason. I give it my best every day, try to make it a tough decision for anybody. Hey, anything can happen. You never know. Sometimes people get hurt and you get a chance to open people's eyes. I learned that in Chicago in 2007."

That year, White Sox backup catcher Toby Hall got hurt and went on the DL just before Opening Day. Suddenly, Molina found himself on a major league roster. He played in 10 games, went to bat 18 times, got one hit -- against the Yankees and Chien-Ming Wang -- and was immediately sent down again as soon as Hall got well.

He's never going to hit much -- he has a single in 13 at-bats this spring for an average of .077 -- but until Cervelli is ready to come back (he gets the boot removed Tuesday and should be able to resume baseball activities not long after), there won't be any worries about passed balls or dropped pop-ups or the more subtle things catchers have to do, like framing pitches and pulling in borderline strikes.

Girardi, a man who wouldn't confirm it was Friday unless you showed him a calendar, won't go the extra step just yet and anoint Molina his backup catcher until all the necessary organizational meetings have been had and all the obligatory discussions exhausted.

But there is at least one man in the Yankees' clubhouse who wouldn't be shocked in the least to find Gustavo Molina keeping the chair warm until he is ready to sit in it again.

"I'm not surprised," said Cervelli, who played with Molina in their native Venezuela. "He can catch, man, he can catch. He can do a lot of things. He's got some of the best hands that I've ever seen. He knows what he's doing. He's a great guy to have back there."

He might have been way back there when training camp began, but for now, it looks like Gustavo Molina has edged his way to the head of the field.

Wallace Matthews has covered New York sports since 1983 as a reporter, columnist, radio host and TV commentator. He covers the Yankees for ESPNNewYork.com after working for Newsday, the New York Post, the New York Sun and ESPN New York 98.7 FM.
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