FORT MYERS, Fla. — Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of Mike Carp walking into Red Sox camp with a Seattle Mariners equipment bag slung over his shoulder and a lot of questions on his mind.
Carp had been designated for assignment by Seattle then traded to the Red Sox. He arrived with no guarantees beyond a chance to compete for a spot on the roster.
Back home in Southern California, Carp had left behind his wife, Didi, and newborn daughter, Cali.
“Strange time,” Carp said Sunday. “My car was packed, ready to go to spring training with Seattle. Then I was traded here and flew across the country. They gave me a locker near the pitchers and nobody knew who I was. My mind was all over the place.”
A year later, Carp is a valuable member of the defending World Series champions, Cali is crawling around, and his family has come to love Boston.
“A life-changing year for me,” Carp said. “To reflect on the last 12 months, it’s kind of hard to believe.”
Carp played in 86 games and hit .296 with an .885 OPS for the Red Sox last season. Of his 64 hits, 29 were for extra bases and he drove in 43 runs.
Carp started games in left field (31), first base (23), and right field (2), and was 5 of 19 as a pinch hitter with two home runs and nine RBIs. No American League pinch hitter drove in more runs.
The biggest hit of the season for Carp came Sept. 11 against the Rays. In a 3-3 game in the 10th inning, Carp pinch hit with the bases loaded and one out against Roberto Hernandez.
He took a strike then drove a fastball over the wall in center for the second grand slam of his career. The shot essentially wrapped up the American League East title for the Red Sox.
“I just marvel at the guy being able to sit there for two or three days then come off the bench and put up a very good at-bat. It’s a testament to his skills,” manager John Farrell said.
Red Sox scouts believed Carp could succeed in a bench role because of a short, compact swing that required little maintenance. Farrell looked for pitching matchups that gave the 27-year-old the best chance at success and invariably seemed to find them.
“He probably exceeded our expectations when you look at the line he put up,” Farrell said. “We tend to forget how young Mike Carp is. He’s still a young player. He could probably start for other teams, we would think. He’s a good player. He accepted the role and formed a routine that allowed him to stay prepared. He was in the game. He performed well under difficult situations.”
Carp was actually pleased when Seattle took him off the roster, believing he had gone as far as he could with the Mariners. It was a relief to get traded to the Red Sox and start over.
“Talk about a mecca for baseball. To be able to walk into [Fenway Park] every day and the special feeling that goes with that, you want to do your best and represent the organization as best you can,” Carp said. “It’s a different feeling, putting on that uniform.”
That attitude, one shared by the other players on the Red Sox bench, was a crucial element last season.
“That probably has as much to do with the success of us as a team, their acceptance of it and working to be prepared,” Farrell said. “[Carp] had the benefit of having other guys around him — Jonny Gomes and David Ross — who were veteran guys in that role. He could pick their brain what to do to stay sharp. But it comes down to setting his own agenda and ego aside and doing the best he is able to do in that role.”
Carp never has had more than 313 plate appearances in a season and wonders whether he could hit 30 home runs as a starter.
“My goal every year is to play every day. I don’t know any position player who wants to sit on the bench and wait his turn,” Carp said. “But having the special chemistry to be on a team like this makes you want to thrive in whatever role you have because you want to help the team out. But you can’t help but think, ‘What would happen if I had 400 or 500 at-bats?’ ”
With Grady Sizemore signed to a one-year deal and Jackie Bradley Jr. pushing to make the team, the Red Sox outfield could get crowded and decisions will have to be made. Carp arrives at spring training with more familiarity but still having to earn playing time.
The Red Sox are pondering having Carp learn to play third base to increase his versatility and give him some more opportunities at the plate. He has not played third base since his first two seasons in the minors, in 2004 and ’05.
“I’ll do whatever they ask,” he said. “I’m not taking anything for granted. I’m in the big leagues and winning, that’s the ultimate goal. Coming back this year, what a difference. I feel like I’m back with my family and we’re ready to go to work.”