Monday, March 7, 2016

The Most With The Least: Mark Carreon (1989-91)

Throughout history, baseball players have begun their careers expecting to excel in one role before their managers found them to be better suited to play another role.  Players such as Rick Ankiel and all-time legend Babe Ruth famously began their careers as pitchers before shifting to the outfield.  Of course, Ankiel made the move to the outfield because he couldn't control where his pitches were going and Ruth made his transition because opposing pitchers couldn't keep his batted balls in the park.

Whereas players such as Ankiel and Ruth made position changes so they could help their teams by appearing more often at the plate, some players have been more useful to their teams by making fewer appearances in the batter's box.  Take, for example, a former Met who was a contact hitter and stolen base threat as an everyday player in the minor leagues before specializing in timely power hitting off the bench at the major league level.

For seven years in the Mets' minor league system, this player dreamed of becoming a major leaguer who would line drive an opposing pitcher to death, then frustrate the pitcher's battery mate by swiping a bag or two.  He didn't do much of that once he got called up to the Mets.  Nor did he find himself on the field all that often.  But he did find a way into the Mets' record books using a skill he never thought he'd use.

No one produced long balls in a pinch better than Mark Carreon.  (B. Bennett/Getty Images)

Mark Steven Carreon was the Mets' eighth round pick in the 1981 June amateur draft, taken five rounds ahead of Lenny Dykstra and four rounds before the Mets selected a skinny pitcher named Roger Clemens, who spurned the team to pitch against collegians in Texas.  While in the minors, Carreon saw players drafted in future years rocket past him to join the Mets, including 1982 draftees Dwight Gooden and Roger McDowell, who helped the team win a championship just four years after they were drafted.  Meanwhile, Carreon spent seven long years in the minors, excelling as a contact hitter with a tremendous eye at the plate (.308 batting average, 389 walks, 240 strikeouts in 3,517 plate appearances).  Carreon was also a speedster, producing three seasons of 30+ steals on his way to a seven-year total of 159 stolen bases in 201 attempts.  One thing he didn't do very well was hit for power, as evidenced by his 32 homers in over 3,500 plate appearances.

In his first seven minor league seasons, Carreon had proven that he could be a successful player at the next level.  But as an outfielder, Carreon's road to everyday success with the Mets was blocked by Kevin McReynolds, Darryl Strawberry, Mookie Wilson and fellow '81 draftee Lenny Dykstra, who were all established major leaguers by the late '80s.  Although Carreon finally made it to the majors as a late-season call-up in 1987, he was once again stuck at AAA-Tidewater for his eighth minor league season in 1988.

Carreon did finally show some power as a member of the Tides in 1988, blasting 14 homers in 102 games, but the extra power came at a cost, as he batted a career-low .263 and had more strikeouts (53) than walks (40).  Carreon was called up twice to the Mets in 1988, but only managed to get into seven games.

The 1989 season - Carreon's ninth in professional baseball - began with Carreon at Tidewater again.  Carreon had been a member of the Tides since late 1985 and was desperate for a break to finally latch on to a spot on the Mets' big league roster, especially with McReynolds, Strawberry, Wilson and Dykstra still manning the outfield at Shea Stadium.  But it wasn't an injury to an outfielder that got Carreon his much-deserved opportunity.  Rather, it was a trip to the disabled list by Mets catcher Gary Carter.

Carter, who was batting .114 at the time, was sidelined in mid-May by a swollen right knee.  The Mets were struggling on offense, batting .232 with a .299 on-base percentage through their first 30 games, and needed someone - anyone - who could help the team turn things around at the plate.  Carreon, who had 21 RBI in 32 games with Tidewater before his call-up, continued to hit at the major league level, collecting a run-scoring single as a pinch-hitter in his first at-bat following his promotion to the Mets.  Making the hit more noteworthy was that it came off Padres closer Mark Davis, who went on to win the Cy Young Award that year.

(B. Bennett/Getty Images)
Less than two weeks later, Carreon came up once again in a pinch-hitting role against the Padres.  This time, the Mets and Friars were hooked up in a pitchers' duel, with New York leading San Diego, 1-0, as the game entered the seventh inning.  The starting pitchers for the two teams were Ron Darling and Bruce Hurst, who had last matched up against each other in Game Seven of the 1986 World Series.  In that memorable game, Hurst had to watch from the bench as Ray Knight led off the seventh inning with a home run that swung the momentum of the game in the Mets' favor.  This time, Hurst was still on the mound when the seventh inning started, but the result was the same.  Leading off the seventh as a pinch-hitter for Darling, Carreon took Hurst deep down the left field line to give the Mets a two-run cushion.  The Mets then added another run late in the game to earn a hard-fought, 3-0 victory.

With Strawberry and McReynolds firmly entrenched in the corner outfield positions and with the newly-acquired Juan Samuel trying his best to play center field (Samuel came over from Philadelphia in a much-maligned trade for Dysktra and McDowell in late June), Carreon knew that the only way he'd stick with the Mets would be as a pinch-hitter.  And although he never fully embraced it, he flourished in his new role.

Just eleven days after delivering his first pinch-hit homer, Carreon came through again, although this time, his blast was directly responsible for a Mets victory.  Facing the Pirates' Bob Kipper in a 3-3 tie, Carreon batted for catcher Mackey Sasser in the seventh and homered to break the tie in the Mets' 4-3 victory.  Manager Davey Johnson was rewarded for his faith in the neophyte and lamented that he couldn't find a bigger role for him on the team.

"It's a tough role for a youngster," Johnson said.  "I have confidence in him, and he's had some big hits for us.  I really don't like to sit him."

Carreon started just 13 games for the Mets from the time he was called up in May until the end of August.  Although he didn't fare well as a starting player, he was phenomenal as a pinch-hitter.  On July 26, he hit his third pinch-hit home run of the season off tough Pirates left-hander John Smiley.  Then on September 22, he clubbed his fourth homer as a pinch-hitter, a shot that broke a 2-2 tie against Montreal that gave the Mets a 3-2 victory.  Carreon's deciding blast versus the Expos tied Danny Heep's single-season club record, which Heep set in 1983 when he produced four pinch-hit home runs of his own.  (The record has since been broken by Jordany Valdespin, who hit five home runs as a pinch-hitter in 2012.)

By the start of the 1990 campaign, the Mets had rid themselves of Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson, and had pulled the plug on the Juan Samuel experiment.  Davey Johnson, who had always wanted to give more regular playing time to Carreon finally found a way to get him into the starting lineup by making him a part-time center fielder now that the Mets had put the Dykstra/Wilson/Samuel trio behind them.  Unfortunately, Johnson didn't stick around long enough to find out how Carreon would perform with the added playing time, as he was fired by the team in late May.

New manager Buddy Harrelson did not share Johnson's feelings on Carreon's ability to play regularly at the major league level.  Harrelson wrote Carreon's name in the starting lineup just 27 times after Johnson was fired and Carreon struggled, save for an eight-game stretch in June in which he batted .478 with four homers, which included his fifth career pinch-hit home run that took place during a wind-plagued doubleheader at Wrigley Field on June 13.

A year after batting .308 under Davey Johnson's tutelage in 1989, Carreon finished the 1990 season with a mediocre .250 batting average.  However, he did manage to hit ten home runs in just 188 at-bats.  In doing so, Carreon became the first Mets player to reach double-digit homers during a season in which he failed to collect 200 at-bats.  (Carreon's teammate, Tim Teufel, duplicated the feat, although Carreon reached the ten-homer mark before Teufel did in the 1990 campaign.)

During the 1990-91 off-season, Darryl Strawberry left the Mets to sign a free agent contract with his hometown Los Angeles Dodgers.  Although the Mets found Strawberry's replacement in Hubie Brooks, trading Bob Ojeda and minor league pitcher Greg Hansell to the Dodgers to acquire him, and also signed free agent Vince Coleman to play center field, Harrelson didn't get the best seasons from either player, and as a result, he had to mix and match his outfielders more often than he would have liked.  That allowed Carreon to start 53 games and surpass 200 at-bats for the first time in his career.  But even with the increased playing time, it was clear where Carreon's best role with the team was.

In 1991, Carreon produced a .245/.277/.281 slash line as a starting player, producing just five extra-base hits (four doubles, one home run) in 206 plate appearances.  But as a pinch-hitter, Carreon was otherworldly, putting up a .343/.425/.629 slash line.  He also matched his extra-base hit total as a starter in 166 fewer plate appearances, producing two doubles and three homers in 40 appearances as a pinch-hitter.  When Carreon went deep off Pirates starter Randy Tomlin on April 16, he matched the team record of six career pinch-hit homers, which had been shared by franchise greats Ed Kranepool and Rusty Staub.

On April 28, Carreon accomplished two things no Met had ever done with one swing of the bat.  When Carreon came up as a pinch-hitter against Pirates starter John Smiley in the fifth inning, he swatted his seventh career pinch-hit home run, breaking the franchise record.  He also became the first - and to this day, only - Mets player to ever hit multiple pinch-hit home runs off the same pitcher, having previously homered off Smiley as a pinch-hitter back in 1989.

Six days after his record-breaking homer, Carreon put the icing on his career pinch-hit home run record cake, blasting a game-tying home run off San Francisco Giants closer Jeff Brantley in the bottom of the ninth inning.  Carreon's shot came immediately after Mackey Sasser delivered a pinch-hit homer of his own, marking the first time in team history that the Mets had hit back-to-back pinch-hit home runs.  Sasser and Carreon's blasts sent the game into extra innings, and the Mets won the game in the 12th frame, when Howard Johnson connected on a two-run homer of his own.

Even though Carreon had become the biggest home run threat off the bench in franchise history, he was frustrated that he wasn't being asked to make a steadier contribution to the team, especially since he felt that his talents were being wasted on the bench.

Photo by Barry Colla

"It's unfortunate that my career is at a standstill when I'm 27 years old and at the peak of my abilities.  There is no doubt I want to play and no doubt I would do (just) about anything so that I can play. ... I'm being used for their convenience when I have so much to offer.  It's a dead end street.  I see my career going straight to nowhere."

Without an everyday role on the team, the Mets gave Carreon the opportunity to become a full-time player elsewhere.  On January 22, 1992, the Mets traded Carreon to the Detroit Tigers for left-handed relief pitcher Paul Gibson.  Gibson, who had a 3.88 lifetime ERA before coming to the Mets, was awful during his two-year tour of duty in New York, posting a 5.22 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 51 appearances.  Through the 2015 season, Gibson's 5.22 ERA is the fifth-highest of any Mets pitcher with at least 50 appearances.  Only Frank Francisco (5.36 ERA, 56 appearances), Craig Anderson (5.56 ERA, 57 appearances), Ryota Igarashi (5.74 ERA, 79 appearances) and Mel Rojas (5.76 ERA, 73 appearances) were worse than Gibson.  Gibson is also one of five Mets pitchers to have a WHIP of at least 1.57 while appearing in 50 or more games for the team, joining Anderson, Igarashi, Paul Siebert and Dwight Bernard.

While Gibson was attracting the boo birds in New York, Carreon was singing a happy tune elsewhere.  Carreon had 300 at-bats for the first time in his career in 1992 as a member of the Tigers, then signed a free agent contract with the San Francisco Giants, for whom he had a banner season in 1995, batting .301 with 24 doubles, 17 homers and 65 RBI in 426 plate appearances during the strike-shortened season.  A year later, Carreon split the season between the Giants and Cleveland Indians, batting .281 and collecting a career-high 34 doubles for the two teams while driving in 65 runs for the second straight season.

Unfortunately, Carreon never played in the majors again after the 1996 season, despite the two fine years as an everyday player in 1995 and 1996.  Carreon played in Japan as a member of the Chiba Lotte Marines in 1997 and 1998, then played in the independent Texas-Louisiana League in 2000, ending his professional baseball career as a .340 hitter for the Jackson Diamond Cats, half a country away from the bright lights of New York City.

Carreon spend the entirety of his Mets career playing a waiting game.  From 1981 to 1988, he waited to get a chance to stick around in the majors.  He had just 21 major league at-bats before he finally got the chance to stay on the roster in May 1989.  Then after establishing himself as the team's top pinch-hitter in 1989, manager Davey Johnson gave Carreon a chance at more playing time as one of the team's center fielders in 1990.  Johnson's firing caused Carreon to wait some more on the bench under new manager Buddy Harrelson.  Finally, in 1991, Carreon seemingly broke just about every career pinch-hitting record he could break.  He broke all these records, yet couldn't get the break he really wanted until he was traded by the team in 1992.

From 1989 to 1991, Carreon batted .302 as a pinch-hitter with a .616 slugging percentage.  In all other situations, those numbers dipped to .262 and .378, respectively.  While in the minors, Carreon was a contact hitter with good speed and little power.  As a major league player with the Mets, he stole just five bases, but set a still-standing franchise record of eight pinch-hit home runs.

Mark Carreon wanted so much more out of his career in New York.  But in the little playing time he did receive, he had more success than anyone could have expected.  Pinch-hitters for the Mets can only dream to have the type of success Carreon had with the team.

Carreon's career didn't go straight to nowhere.  It went straight to the Mets' record books. (Photo by Barry Colla)

Note:  The Most With The Least is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players who performed at a high level without receiving the accolades or playing time their more established teammates got, due to injuries, executive decisions or other factors.  For previous installments, please click on the players' names below:

January 4, 2016: Benny Agbayani
January 11, 2016: Donn Clendenon
January 18, 2016: Tim Teufel
January 25, 2016: Hisanori Takahashi
February 1, 2016: Chris Jones
February 8, 2016: Claudell Washington
February 15, 2016: Moises Alou
February 22, 2016: Pat Zachry
February 29, 2016: Art Shamsky

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