During the nightcap of yesterday’s double header, the Yankees announced that they had traded minor league relief pitcher Jeff Kennard to the Angels for catcher Jose Molina. Molina will become the Yankees’ new backup catcher as soon as he arrives in New York (or Kansas City if he doesn’t make it today), at which point Wil Nieves will be designated for assignment.
First, let’s dispense with Kennard. He’s a right-handed relief pitcher who throws a mid-90s fastball with no movement and gets a bit wild from time to time. He turns 26 later this week and has yet to crack triple-A. This describes Scott Proctor in mid-2003 just before the Yankees acquired him in the Robin Ventura deal, except that Proctor had some experience as a starter and Kennard has made just one start as a professional. Besides, who needs two Scott Proctors? The Yankees used to have another Scott Proctor named Bret Prinz. Prior to the 2005 season, they traded Prinz, then 28 and with 95 major league games under his belt, to the Angels for Wil Nieves. Prinz has since pitched his way through the Rockies and White Sox organizations and is getting lit up for the triple-A Iowa Cubs in the Pacific Coast League. These guys are a dime a dozen, so there’s no harm using one to try to upgrade a position that’s sorely lacking at the big-league level. Kennard had been on the 40-man roster only because he’d been in the minors so long that the Yankees had to add him to keep him out of the Rule 5 draft. They did that because they thought they had made a breakthrough by dropping Kennard’s arm slot. Kennard was pitching well for Trenton, but he was no Edwar Ramirez.
As for the catching situation, Wil Nieves went 2 for 3 with two doubles in last night’s game. That makes him 4 for his last 10, all four hits being doubles. That recent surge pushed Nieves’ season line to .164/.190/.230. It’s obscene that the Yankees waited this long to make a move. Given that Nieves hit .259/.298/.346 in triple-A last year, there was nothing to wait around for. Anyone, even last year’s failure Sal Fasano, would have been an improvement (in his brief time with Toronto this year, Fasano hit .178/.229/.311, which is a hair better than what he did for the Yankees last year). By acquiring the middle Molina, the Yankees have done better than Fasano: The Sequel, though not by a whole lot.
Molina is ultimately little more than Wil Nieves four years in the future (though without a big brother clearing the way for him, Nieves is unlikely to get the opportunity Molina has had). A career .245/.314/.319 hitter in the minor leagues, Molina first sniffed the majors with the Cubs in 1999 at the age of 24 (Nieves did the same at the same age with the Padres). After brief appearances with the Angels in 2001 and 2002 (though more extensive than the ones Nieves had with the Yankees over the last two years), Molina finally cracked the 100 at-bat mark in 2003 with a Nieves-like .184/.210/.219 line. The next year, however, Molina got all the way to 203 at-bats and looked like a major league backup catcher, hitting .261/.296/.374 (hey, that’s what these guys hit). It’s been downhill from there, however, as Molina’s production has declined annually, bottoming out at .228/.246/.293 thus far this year.
Yes, Jose Molina, 32-year-old, righty-hitting backup catcher, is a terrible hitter (ML career .238/.276/.339), but even that dreadful career line would be better production than the Yankees have had from a backup catcher since 2004. Read it and weep:
2005: John Flaherty (.165/.206/.252)
2006: Kelly Stinnett (.228/.282/.304)
2006: Sal Fasano (.143/.222/.286)
2007: Wil Nieves (.164/.190/.230)
The Yankees had no idea how good they had it with Kelly Stinnett.
Molina has one other advantage over Nieves: he can throw out baserunners. Nieves has thrown out only six of 27 baserunners this season (22%), and 10 of 43 on his career (23%). Molina has thrown out 28 percent of baserunners this season and a far more impressive 41 percent in his career. Over the last three seasons (2004 to 2006), Molina has thrown out 47 percent of the men trying to steal on him.
So the Yankees have made a very modest upgrade at their least important position (only Kevin Thompson, Chris Basak, and Shelley Duncan have had fewer plate appearances for the Yankees than Wil Nieves this season) for a minimal expense. They say nothing ventured, nothing gained. Both may be true in this case, but if Molina gets hot (last year he hit .377/.414/.642 from the beginning of July through mid-August), it’ll be a great move. If he tanks like Fasano did last year, he’ll replicate Nieves’ production and provide better defense. In that way this is something of a win-win for the Yankees. If nothing else, the fact that Edwar Ramirez and Shelley Duncan have had recent callups and that Wil Nieves has been replaced (and not by triple-A duds Raul Chavez or Omir Santos) proves that Brian Cashman is paying attention. Every little bit helps, even if it’s a very little bit. I just hope Mike Mussina can handle the disruption.