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Relaxed Upton showing he belongs

There are a number of indicators the Devil Rays' spring experiment with B.J. Upton has been a success.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published March 26, 2007


ST. PETERSBURG - There are a number of indicators the Devil Rays' spring experiment with B.J. Upton has been a success.

Upton has looked smooth and natural playing the outfield. He is getting increasingly comfortable at second base. He is working better at-bats, taking more aggressive swings, hitting the ball harder. He is noticeably more relaxed and confident.

And, perhaps most telling of all, he is smiling again.

"It's definitely a lot more fun," Upton said. "Definitely. A lot more."

The game had become increasingly less fun and more frustrating for Upton who, though only 22, was being labeled as something of a disappointment, a No. 2 overall pick in 2002 who had yet to establish himself as a major-leaguer, much less an impact player.

The Rays hoped this spring to make things better for Upton and, more importantly, to make Upton better by taking the focus off his troublesome defense by moving him around several positions and having him focus on improving his offense.

The project is ongoing. But the spring results have been encouraging enough that when the Rays finalize their decisions this week, Upton seems likely to make his first opening day roster, with a chance for considerable playing time.

"He's still very young and in my opinion still has the same chance of being a high-end impact player," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "He's made dramatic strides this spring. There's little nuances that he needs to work on, and he knows that as well as anyone. But I'm very confident that B.J. will have a very productive season."

"B.J.'s done a great job so far," manager Joe Maddon said. "His whole game has gotten better."

Having been promoted prematurely and demoted and having his position debated and changed in past seasons, Upton wasn't sure what to think - and others around the game were skeptical - when Maddon unveiled his plan.

The idea was to get Upton to relax and rely on his natural abilities in the field while concentrating on regaining the aggressive hitting style that made him one of the game's most dynamic prospects.

"I think Joe's instincts to get him to de-emphasize defense and focus on his offense has worked very well," Friedman said. "We've seen him make a lot of strides offensively, and defensively he's let his athleticism take over, which has resulted in less mistakes. He's worked very hard on all aspects of his game, which has freed his mind to get back to the offensive levels we've seen in the past."

Upton admits he isn't quite there offensively, with the benchmark his stellar 2005 season at Triple-A Durham, when he hit .303 with 18 homers, 74 RBIs and 44 stolen bases. But he feels much closer to that than what he did last year at Durham .269-8-41 in 106 games or the tentative form he showed with the Rays (.246-1-10 in 50 games).

"It's like night and day for me right now from last year," he said.

The difference has been a few mechanical adjustments, such as slightly changing the position of his hands and using his lower body more, and a better approach, evident despite a .246 spring average (14-for-57).

"He's working tougher at-bats, he's making harder contact, his bat head is getting to the right spot," Maddon said. "I think his confidence has come up based on the fact that he feels more comfortable defensively."

Upton's progress in the field is tougher to quantify. There are times, such as March 15 when he turned a tough double play against the Indians and Saturday when he made a running over-the-shoulder catch in centerfield against the Red Sox, when he looks smooth at both positions. Then there was Thursday, when he misplayed a fly in center, and the occasional moment when he feels lost at second and has to think about what he has to do.

Upton, who still has thoughts of returning to his original shortstop position, is willing to go along with the multiple position concept - "for now," he said - but hopes by the end of the year to be established at one position.

And he has some other goals for this season, too.

"Staying here all year," he said. "And making an impact."

Fast Facts:

 

Upton's upside

Though B.J. Upton hasn't shown it in the major leagues, the Rays say he has the talent to be a dynamic offensive player. He considers his 2005 season at Triple-A Durham his best work. Here's what he did then, and what he has done in two stints in the majors:

G Avg. AB R H HR RBI SB OBP SLG

Durham '05 139 .303 545 98 165 18 74 44 .392 .490

Rays '04, '06 95 .251 334 39 84 5 22 15 .312 .347

. fast facts

Upton's upside

Though B.J. Upton hasn't shown it in the major leagues, the Rays say he has the talent to be a dynamic offensive player. He considers his 2005 season at Triple-A Durham his best work. Here's what he did then, and what he has done in two stints in the majors:

G Avg. AB R H HR RBI SB OBP SLG

Durham 2005 139 .303 545 98 165 18 74 44 .392 .490 .

Rays 2004, 06 95 .251 334 39 84 5 22 15 .312 .347

Source: Rays