tampabay.com

Upton's challenge: to be a master of all trades

To win spot, he's learning several jobs at once.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 6, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - The Devil Rays say the solution to B.J. Upton's throwing problems is as simple as getting him to put his right foot in front of his left.

But it's a little trickier two-step when they have him running all over the field.

With Upton yet to convince the Rays he can handle any one position defensively, they are trying him this spring at several: third base, shortstop, second base and centerfield already, with the possibility of more. The idea is that using Upton, 22, as a super utility man could reduce the pressure on him to excel at any one spot, but having to work on the intricacies, responsibilities and strategies of several different positions - sometimes in the same game - can make the task more difficult, too.

"Definitely," Upton said. "You're at a couple different positions and you've got different things you're working on, they can maybe run into each other. I'm trying to do a good job of separating them and being able to play all three, plus the outfield maybe."

Monday morning was a prime example, as Upton did early work tracking fly balls in the outfield, met with infield coach Tom Foley to improve his footwork at third base, then took infield practice at shortstop, where he played five error-free innings.

"It's tough, and this is the first time for him really," Foley said. "But once you get used to it, you just grab your glove, go out, catch it and throw it. We just want him to go out and play and not think about anything."

Ultimately, Upton still wants to play shortstop. Wishfully, he'd like to settle into one position this season and become an everyday player. Realistically, he knows he has to do whatever the Rays want so he can spend his first full season in the big leagues.

Manager Joe Maddon uses the Angels' super utility man Chone Figgins as a point of reference, but a more familiar role model for Upton is Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer, a childhood friend from Virginia and fellow first-round pick who bounced around the infield and outfield for several years before becoming the Twins' regular rightfielder last season.

"It's definitely not an easy thing to do, and I told him that, and to let me know if he needs to talk to someone," Cuddyer said. "It's tough, but at the same time it gives you an opportunity to get in that starting nine and get plate appearances, and he has to understand that as well. It's better to play five different positions than play one position in the minor leagues."

Cuddyer said Upton, who has made 22 errors in 95 big-league games, can handle the complex assignment, but the key is maintaining the right attitude. "He's got such athletic ability and he's been able to rely on that athletic ability for so long, sometimes you hit that bump in the road and it's not that he doesn't try to get better, but it's tough, a tough adjustment," Cuddyer said. "He's going to be fine as long as he continues to have a good outlook."

Maddon's plan is for Upton to establish himself as an impact player offensively and let his defensive play dictate his permanent position. For now, all Upton can do is work - "He's a great kid and he's worked as hard as anyone in camp," Foley said - to improve, especially the footwork that will help his throwing.

One step at a time.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays.