Rays' best? It's not who you think

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Columnist
Published September 27, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - The best player in a Devil Rays uniform has never made an All-Star team.

He did not hit more than 40 home runs this season, and he is not a contender for the American League Rookie of the Year Award. The best player in a Rays uniform is not the guy you thought he was five months ago.

Strange how it has come about. While you were applauding Carlos Pena and cheering Delmon Young, it was another player who was turning heads in opposing dugouts.

Say hello to B.J. Upton, the crown jewel of a franchise.

It is a realization that arrived gradually, almost imperceptibly. One moment, you were wondering if Upton would ever live up to his stature as the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft, and the next moment you were imagining a career of uncommon production.

By now, we know he is that good. By now, we understand he is a 30-30 season waiting to happen. By now, we know he is the one player on the roster the Rays have to consider untouchable.

"He hits the ball as hard as anyone on this team, or in this league," manager Joe Maddon said. "There's nothing he can't do on a baseball field."

It is not just the .300 batting average or the 24 home runs and 21 stolen bases - although only four other players have put up similar numbers at age 23 or younger. It is not just the effortless way he shifted to centerfield at midseason - although it already appears a Gold Glove could be in his future.

No, with Upton it is the subjective qualities that baseball people like to talk about around dugouts and batting cages. The sound they hear when his bat connects with a pitch. The grace in his movements in centerfield. His willingness to learn, and the competitiveness in his manner.

"Such great balance and strength," said bench coach Bill Evers, who was Upton's manager at Triple-A Durham. "You wouldn't believe the amount of strength he has. The strength, the bat speed, the grace - it's all there."

Not so long ago, these qualities were harder to discern. Rushed prematurely to the majors as a 19-year-old shortstop in 2004, Upton's development seemed to take two steps backward. He was a wreck defensively, and the frustrations seemed to seep into his at-bats. A .519 slugging percentage in Triple A in 2004 dipped to .490 the next year and .394 the year after that. Instead of growing as a hitter, Upton was going backward.

He had stopped driving the ball toward right-center. His swing got long, and his confidence waned.

By the time Upton reached spring training this season, he had no position to call his own and his bat was nearly as suspect as his glove. That's when Maddon and the Rays decided to ease his worries. After four years of struggling to improve as a shortstop, the Rays told him to forget about defense. They would find him a position if he just concentrated on hitting.

So Upton began the season at second base and, eventually, moved to centerfield after Rocco Baldelli went on the disabled list and Elijah Dukes was sent home.

And while Carl Crawford was making another All-Star team, Pena was setting a franchise record for home runs and Young was battling Dustin Pedroia for rookie of the year, Upton unobtrusively put together a stellar season. His batting average has not been below .300 the entire year, and he is the youngest player among the AL's top 10 in OPS on-base plus slugging.

Combine the plate discipline, power and speed with a premium position defensively, and Upton looks like a Grady Sizemore-type franchise player.

"It just amazes me that a guy 6-2, 180 pounds can create his power and have the ball jump off the bat the way he does," said designated hitter Greg Norton. "To go 20-20 at his age when he missed a month (with a quadriceps strain) is amazing. He's got all the tools, the entire package."

He also has a permanent home. The Rays are not making any definitive announcements, but it has become clear that Upton is in centerfield to stay. He plays the position too well, and has grown too comfortable to consider bouncing him around.

"I'm still learning out there, but I'm happy," Upton said. "If that's where the team thinks I can help them the most, then that's definitely what I want to do."

In the coming months, the Rays will have some difficult decisions on the table. There will be the question of how much they offer Pena in a multi-year contract. There will be the choice of picking up Baldelli's contract option. And there will be the temptation to trade one of their talented everyday players for more pitching help.

As for Upton, that's the easiest decision of all.

He's the one you build around.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.