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August 11, 2011 at 2:24 PM

Of Rats and Men: Mike Carp giving the Mariners that grown-up bat they’ve been looking for

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After finishing a post-game scrum session with Mike Carp last night, I happened to look up in his locker and noticed another set of eyes staring back at me.
It was a small figurine — of a rat.
Hey, Mike, what gives with that?
Turns out, the rat’s name is El Raton. Yes, I know, real original. Everybody from Guadalajara to Buenos Aires is rolling their eyes over that one.
But there’s a good story behind the rat. Carp received it from teammate Jose Coronado, a Venezuelan infielder, while with the Mets in Class AA Binghampton before the December 2008 deal that brought him to Seattle.
“Everybody on that team had some kind of nickname, or some kind of thing they were known for,” Carp said. “So, for me, somebody just thought it was funny that I be given a rat.”
Coronado and his Spanish-speaking teammates gave the rat his name. Carp carried the rat with him in the minors and it got a new nickname last year — “Rally Rat” — as the AAA Tacoma Rainiers battled for the PCL title.
The rat was placed in the on-deck circle and hitters would tap it before stepping to the plate.
Carp doesn’t have any rodents greeting him in the on-deck circle this year. El Raton, Rally Rat, or whatever it’s called, stays in his locker. But he hasn’t needed any pre-at-bat luck in his second go-around with the Mariners. In 127 plate appearances with the M’s so far this season, he’s hitting .310 with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .861.
And most of that has come since being called back up on July 19. In 85 plate appearances since then, he’s hit .358 with four homers, 18 RBI and a .981 OPS.
Yes, he’s been the “big bat” this team really needed back in mid-June. You know, right around the time Carp was first called up from Class AAA.

Unfortunately for the M’s, they were already auditioning guys for 2012 back then even when fans were hoping they could stay in the 2011 hunt for first place. Instead of deploying Carp every day after he’d produced a 22-game hitting streak in the minors, the team insisted on running Carlos Peguero out night after night, as if oblivious to what was going on in the standings or on the scoreboard.
Now, Peguero is back in the minors working on some things so the next time he gets called up, he won’t be striking out every second or third at-bat.
And Carp is finally getting the playing time he probably should have received back when the season still meant something other than serving as an open audition.
“That’s what I was doing in AAA and I want to continue doing it up here, obviously,” Carp said last night. “It’s fun to actually get an opportunity and do what I was doing down there for once. I hadn’t had some success up here yet. So, now I’ve had a little bit and it’s fun. I want to keep it going as long as I can.”
So, now that we’ve got no choice but to focus on 2012, the addition of Carp really has given the Mariners a different look. Nobody expects him to keep hitting .358, but the combination of a guy hitting for average and some power certainly wasn’t expected from a player saddled with the Class AAAA label when the season began.
The slimmed-down version of Carp still won’t win Gold Gloves in the outfield. But he can at-least play there in a pinch and play first base as well. That’s more than Jack Cust could say and Carp so far has outperformed the guy who was the DH for half a season.
In other words, Carp just very well may be this team’s primary DH option in 2012.
How could so many have underestimated Carp?
Simple. He’s only 25. And no matter what anybody tries to imply, you simply can’t “predict” how every ballplayer is going to turn out before his mid-20s. We may have been led to believe that by the plethora of “scouting” reports and statistical analysis offered up on any of the thousands of baseball websites and blogs out there, some very good and some exceedingly amateurish — no matter how slick the page design. There’s simply an information overload on prospects these days and not all of it is reliable.
Talk to anyone who’s actually worked in professional baseball for more than a few years and they’ll tell you that prospects are being rushed up more and more often and that much of it has little to do with talent.
Teams are looking to cut costs with cheap, young players and would rather accept growing pains with a young guy in the majors than pay an experienced one 10 times the money for more stable production. Or, teams feel pressure from increasingly-impatient fans to justify high draft picks and thus rush them to the big leagues before they’re ready.
A player like Peguero gets written off by fans — many irate that he was helping lose games that still meant something in the standings — even though he barely had any AAA experience before being thrust into a daily MLB role. Give the guy a little more time. He may surprise you.
On the flip-side, Carp was being written off before the season began simply because he’d been up twice with the M’s and barely registered a blip. Because his AAA numbers were OK, but not as flashy as some other players had. Hey, we were all guilty of it. Let’s have our lesson and learn from it moving forward.
In the “old” days, before everybody with a laptop and a copy of the Baseball America handbook began operating sites that analyze prospects, it was not uncommon for guys to spend up-and-down years in the minors and then a few more in the majors before anyone really began making a call on their future career.
So, here we have Carp. He played his first pro game in 2004. Do the counting: that’s now parts of eight years he’s spent in the minors in order to hone his craft.
And here we are, in Year No. 8, with it all finally panning out.
In AAA, he hit .343 with a 1.060 OPS and 21 homers this year. He’s got a .411 on-base-percentage there and fairly low strikeout totals. So, no obvious red flags. And now, being given a shot in the big leagues, he’s carrying his game over.
He’s what you call “seasoned”.
We don’t see that as much with young guys anymore. There’s a very good chance that what you’re seeing with Carp is what you’re going to get moving forward. He appears to have figured out the mental part of the game as well as physical. Appears to be a guy that can handle the ups-and-downs of major league baseball.
Time will tell. But if that’s the case, what a nice development for the M’s.
This wasn’t meant to be a shot at people running legitimate prospect evaluation sites. There are quality sites out there, both paid and free, where the folks running them pour their heart into it and take time to learn from the pros. Who do the research. Who have seen the inside of a pro clubhouse (or at least seen players up close enough to know they’re all human and that what separates one guy from the next on a real-life talent scale often isn’t as massive as it may look in a numbers printout). Who at least make an effort to understand pro baseball life and do know what they are talking about most of the time. Some are ex-scouts. Some have worked in big league front offices. Some are just interested writers and put in the legwork to talk to the right people and learn what it takes to really evaluate a player. No issue with them, since no one has the prediction game 100 percent nailed anyhow.
But there’s a ton of crap out there as well. Welcome to the internet. And as more and more crap finds its way to more and more browsers, those who don’t find time to sift through it all can be misled into thinking that every hot young prospect has to make an impact someplace by age 22 or 23.
Carp is, as I said, a lesson to all of us to resist the temptation to write a guy off when he’s still young enough to change. That means, you, me, and anyone else who’s done it.
Because the next time it happens, we’ll all be able to smell a rat.
And it will be the one in Carp’s locker. The one that’s made it to the big leagues.



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