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B.J. Upton, headed for free agency, reflects on time with Tampa Bay Rays

BOSTON

He remembers his embarrassing first day as a (Devil) Ray, dehydrating during a 2002 instructional league workout and taken from the old Naimoli training complex by ambulance.

His first big-league hit, a single off Tim Wakefield as a 19-year-old who wasn't ready to be there. His first home run, two weeks later off Kelvim Escobar. The starts and stops — and position changes — along the way, The struggles in the green uniforms before the transformation in blue. The low point of being pulled off the field for a lack of hustle. The crescendo of the 2008 postseason.

And now B.J. Upton can see the end.

"I try not to, but as the (end of the) season closes in, it's tough not to think about it," Upton said. "It could be a little weird."

Upton is a free agent at the end of the season, which means, in all likelihood, he is playing his final games with the Rays — nine, if they don't make the playoffs, and counting.

Upton, agent Larry Reynolds and Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman all throw out the proper caveats: That they'll talk, that no decisions have been made, that who knows what will happen. (It also should be pointed out that they had several discussions in the past without ever agreeing on a multi-year deal.)

But the reality is that while the Rays could pay the kind of money Upton is headed toward — say, $12-14 million a year, or more — they can't afford the risk of committing to the number of years that players in his position get, say, four to seven.

"You see what the history is," Upton said. "But I don't know. It's too early to tell what's going to happen."

Most likely, what will happen is that the Rays, to get draft pick compensation under the new free agency system, will make a qualifying offer right after the World Series, a one-year deal, based on an MLB average of top salaries, for around $13.25 million.

Reynolds will have a week to get a sense of things, then turn down the offer and Upton will hit the open market as a 28-year-old with a rare combination of power and speed and the ability to impact the game in all phases, seeking that money maybe half a dozen times over.

"B.J. goes out and plays every day, and he plays to win," Reynolds said. "I think the rest of the talent speaks for itself. And I think the wise baseball people know what kind of talent B.J. has."

He has shown it in flashes during his parts of seven seasons with the Rays, the surges of power (like the 16 homers in his past 41 games), the speed on the bases, the ground he covers in centerfield and the lasers to the plate. He last month became the eighth player in major-league history to post 100 home runs and 200 steals before turning 28.

"B.J. has meant a tremendous amount to this organization," Friedman said, "and has been an integral part of the success we've enjoyed on the field."

But he also has been maddening to watch over the years: Getting picked off, throwing to the wrong base, striking out often and snarling at the umpire, and taking an at-times casual approach that at least makes it look like he is not hustling. (And led to him twice getting benched during the 2008 season.)

"I've talked often about how there's no fear in his game, no fear at all," manager Joe Maddon said. "I also believe he has matured annually. He has become a better baseball player every year, to the point that where he's at right now, he is the best he's been.

"And not just because he's hitting home runs now. I think his decision-making on the bases has gotten better. I think his decision-making in the field has gotten better. Even his at-bats with borderline pitches, you don't see the same arguing with umpires. All that stuff seems to have gone away. So there's a higher level of maturity in his game in general."

Veteran starter James Shields, who has known Upton since he was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 draft and is a day behind him as the longest serving current Ray, is impressed with the progress.

"Over the last few years, he's really become a leader," Shields said. "Especially this year, he's really good in this clubhouse, helping a lot of guys out. He's evolved as a player. He's really come into his own."

Upton, who grew up in Virginia, is comfortable enough in the Tampa Bay area that he not only calls it home now but plans to stay, regardless of where he ends up playing.

But he feels he has never been fully accepted, which could make next week's potential three-game farewell even more interesting.

"I kind of got the feeling here that either you love me or you hate me, there is no in-between," Upton said. "So I'm sure there will be some mixed feelings. I can't control that. People are going to have their own perceptions and their opinion and what they think.

"I know what I'm about. Guys I played with over the years, they know what I'm about. You kind of mature every year, and that's what I've done. I don't regret anything that's happened, good or bad. It's kind of made me who I am now."

Soon, that will include being an ex-Ray.

"That's out of my control, and we'll see what happens then," Upton said. "My thing is to have as much fun with these guys as I can now."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

Upton by the numbers

0 Players who have led the Rays in homers, RBIs and stolen bases in a season; he has a shot to be the first

2 Major-leaguers with 25 homers and 30 steals; Upton and the Angels' Mike Trout

16 Homers in his past 41 games since Aug. 11, most in the majors during that span, including 10 in September

50 Outfield assists since 2007, most among all centerfielders

B.J. Upton, headed for free agency, reflects on time with Tampa Bay Rays 09/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012 11:02pm]

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