Rays' Upton works at changing his image

BY Ken Rosenthal • March 18, 2010

Rays center fielder B.J. Upton is vague when you ask him exactly what he wants to do differently on and off the field.

"Just everything,” he says. “I think there was just an accumulation of things that needed to change. For me to sit here and tell you all of  ‘em . . . that probably wouldn’t happen.”

Upton, 25, need not spill all his secrets, but if he is indeed maturing, then the Yankees, Red Sox and the rest of the AL East should take heed.

Better production out of Upton – along with better production at catcher and designated hitter – will transform the Rays’ offense into a wrecking ball.

Of course, several projection systems forecast the Rays winning 90 games – and missing the postseason with the third-best record in the entire AL.

No matter. The Rays, because of their youth, possess far more upside than the Yankees and Red Sox. And no player better represents that upside than Upton.

His recovery from surgery on his left (front) shoulder restricted him last season, but his health no longer is an issue.

His occasional lack of hustle and inattentive play frustrated the Rays, but those are two of the things that Upton vows to change.

“That’s coming right out of B.J.’s heart,” says Upton’s agent, Larry Reynolds. “Nobody is telling him to say anything. He’s very motivated. He has always been that way. Like most guys, they learn as they go.”

There might be more to it, too.

Upton’s younger brother, Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton, recently signed a six-year, $51.25 million contract. B.J. Upton will earn $3 million this season – he lost in arbitration after requesting $3.3 million from the Rays.

“He’s all of the player, if not more, that his brother is,” Rays third baseman Evan Longoria says. “I know that there’s no spite from B.J. looking at Justin, him getting his contract. But seeing what Justin
got, his reward for what he’s done, I think he might also be using that to push himself.

“He’s taken that and said, ‘I’m going to change the way I’m going about my business. I’m going to put all of this talent and God-given ability to work.’ I think it’s going to be a good thing for him.”

Make no mistake -- the Rays like Upton. Manager Joe Maddon praises him for always being accountable. Some of his teammates dispute that he ever lacked focus. Everyone describes him as a nice, diligent, respectful kid.

But Upton, who hit seven homers in the 2008 postseason before undergoing surgery, produced only a .686 OPS last season, the second lowest in the AL.

Part of his problem was his shoulder. Upton says that he could not reach certain pitches, swing the way he wanted. Yet, he is quick to add, “You obviously can’t blame the whole season on that.”

Another part of Upton’s problem – his perception problem, anyway – is that he looks so effortless, particularly when he glides to balls in center field. A fan might watch Upton move and say, “Why isn’t he going full speed?” when in reality he is indeed running hard.

Reynolds, Upton’s agent, says he prepared a video of seven or eight of Upton’s best catches for his arbitration hearing. But Reynolds ultimately decided not to use the video, believing that to the  untrained arbitrator’s eye, the catches would not appear all that impressive. Upton made them look too easy.

A scout says of Upton, “He’s like a beautiful woman, cursed by his natural gifts. You want more and more.” But part of this is on Upton, too.

The question remains whether he will ever play with the same sense of urgency as say, Rays left fielder Carl Crawford.

Upton simply might not be wired that way. But the early signs – from his public comments to his renewed dedication in the offseason to his increased attention to detail this spring – are good.

Longoria says he was taken aback in early November when the Rays’ new hitting coach, Derek Shelton, told him that Upton was already hitting. Upton could not do such work the previous offseason – he had just undergone surgery – but Longoria says, “That kind of told me right there that something had changed with him mentally.”

Rays general manager Andrew Friedman says that Upton was “very humbled” by last season. Upton does not disagree, saying that, “it’s good sometimes to go through it and just realize what you’ve got to do.”

“It’s like going to baseball rehab,” Longoria says. “The first step is admitting that you have some flaws. We all need help in this game. No one ever is going to be perfect.

“It’s good to hear him say that (he needs to change) and admit it. That’s the first step, realizing that. The next step is, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ And he’s definitely done a lot of things.”

Upton was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft as a high school shortstop from Virginia. His development stalled as the Rays tried to find him the right position. He appeared on the verge of stardom in ’07 and then again in the '08 postseason. But his injury set him back.

Now he says he is right, mentally and physically. No more excuses, no more wrong turns. He is ready, at last, for a big year.

"That’s it,” Upton says. “I don’t expect anything less out of myself.

“I think there are some positives and negatives from the past. I want to apply all of them to my game not just the positives. You learn a lot from the negatives, too.

“I’m in a better place, ready to go.”

If that is the case, we are talking about a completely different player, a completely different team and maybe a completely different AL East race.

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