Thanks for the advice Dylan!
I put it back together with new carrier bearings last night. I tried a trick that I saw online where you freeze the carrier and heat the bearings up in oil. It went right together with a few well placed taps from the dead blow hammer!
I still have one loose side, where I was able to install / remove the bearing by hand, but it is not loose enough to slip when the carrier turns (no evidence of it having slipped before either).
The diff is overall much quieter than it was before. It still has a grating noise that must be from the pinion bearings (matches the noise i heard when turning the pinion with the carrier removed) that can be heard around town. faintly. with the radio off and the windows up.
I think I'm going to keep and eye on the pinion and run it until something changes for the worst. When it does, I'll 8.8 it. I don't feel that dumping another dime into the 44a is money well spent. For now, he gears looked good, the carrier and outer / wheel bearings are brand new, there was not a noticeable amount of metal in the fluid when I initially drained it... Only issue is the slight noise from the pinion, which is still nice and tight.