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Upside for Rays' Upton keeps rising

ST. PETERSBURG

How remarkably far B.J. Upton has come in the past 12 months can be measured in several ways.

The impressive numbers he put up after making his first big-league opening day roster. The absence of all but outfield gloves in his locker this spring. And how the questions the Rays have about him have changed.

A year ago, they didn't know what position, how often or even if he'd play for them. Now? They ponder just how good he can be and wonder how he's going to show it first.

An All-Star? ("Hands down if he didn't get hurt last year," pitcher Scott Kazmir said.)

A Gold Glove winner? ("There's capabilities," manager Joe Maddon said.)

A 30-30 man? ("Hell yes," leftfielder Carl Crawford said.)

"He's definitely all the above," pitcher James Shields said. "He can do everything. He hits for power, he moves guys over, he steals bags, he does it all. And he gets great jumps in the outfield. He's just an athlete. I definitely think he's going to be one of the best in the game."

Freed from worrying about his defense under the Rays' unorthodox and innovative plan to use him like a utility man last spring, Upton blossomed into the dynamic offensive force he'd been projected to be. As a bonus, he turned into a pretty good centerfielder.

"His athleticism allows him to do a lot of things better than the average person," Crawford said. "And to mix that with a high IQ of baseball and all his baseball gifts, put all that together and it's one of those remarkable things you just don't get to see that often."

"There's not many people who can do all the things that he does," outfielder Rocco Baldelli said. "There aren't any real shortcomings in his game. I think over time he's going to progress to where he's one of the top couple centerfielders in all of baseball."

Upton is special for several reasons — a lean but ripped and strong body, keen batting eye, quick (and loud) bat, a willingness to learn and a desire to win.

But what really sets him apart is the package of power and speed.

"If you break down each major-league team, do they have one guy that has that legitimate combination of speed and power where you think he could hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases?" Maddon asked. "That's really a rare, rare combination."

Despite missing five weeks midseason with a left quadriceps strain, Upton had 24 homers and 22 steals (becoming the Rays' first 20-20 man and the fifth youngest in history to do so while hitting .300). And Maddon considers him fully capable of becoming just the 10th American Leaguer to join the 30-30 club.

"There's no doubt," Maddon said, "and I don't think I'm putting any undue pressure on him because I believe he believes that."

"Easy," said Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer, a childhood friend. "He's got unbelievable talent."

And he's still improving. Upton has a few things to work on, from learning to take better care of his legs to stay healthy all season, to specific facets of his game.

His 154 strikeouts were third most in the AL; he tailed off as the season wore on, hitting just .244 over the final month; he was caught stealing eight times; he would occasionally misread a fly ball or take a bad route.

On the other hand, he's (still) only 23, now has the benefit (and confidence) of a full season in the majors and doesn't have the stress of getting comfortable at two new positions (second base, then centerfield).

"B.J.'s got the talent to be extremely special, now it's just about the consistency over 162 games that I have no doubt that he'll learn," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "It's part of the development process of young players."

Upton has impressed that way as well, with Maddon calling him a "Gold Glove personality, too," citing his maturity, accountability, openness to criticism and determination, "those intangible qualities that are going to permit him to become a star."

As much as he can be a force on the field, Upton — usually — speaks barely above a whisper in the clubhouse.

He admits that he now "loves" playing centerfield and plans to stay there "forever," abandoning any thoughts of returning to the infield. He says he was pleased with his 2007 performance, "but it's only one year, and I've got to prove I can do it again." And he offers only some generic goals for this season, "to do better than I did last year, and to do it all year."

But, almost grudgingly, he admits there might be something else he has in mind:

"Maybe that 30-30 thing you're talking about."

Just maybe?

Marc Topkin can be reached at

topkin@sptimes.com.

>>FAST FACTS

What if?

B.J. Upton didn't play every day at the start of last season and missed five weeks with a left quadriceps strain. What he did and what it projects to over a full season:

Avg. H R 2B HR RBI SB

Actual .300 142 86 25 24 82 22

Projected .300 178 108 31 30 103 28

Source: Times research

30-30 vision

B.J. Upton is a strong candidate to join the 33 players who have combined 30 homers and 30 stolen bases in a single season, but only seven did so as centerfielders:

Player Team

Willie Mays1956-57 Giants

Dale Murphy1983 Braves

Eric Davis1987 Reds

Ron Gant1990-91 Braves

Preston Wilson2000 Marlins

Jose Cruz Jr.2001 Blue Jays

Carlos Beltran2004 Royals/

Astros

Source: baseball-almanac.com

Upside for Rays' Upton keeps rising 03/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, March 20, 2008 9:46am]

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