Upton still in search of a full-time position

From shortstop to second base to third base to the outfield, B.J. Upton is playing a variety of positions this spring for the Devil Rays.

Originally Published: March 14, 2007
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- We thought he'd be a star by now.

Who didn't think B.J. Upton would be a star by now?

It's five years since the Devil Rays made him the second player picked in the 2002 draft -- ahead of a glittering first-round group that included Prince Fielder, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, Jeff Francoeur, Jeff Francis, Nick Swisher and Khalil Greene.

It's three years since one scouting director watched Upton trot out to shortstop in the 2004 Futures Game and called him "the guy with the best tools on the field." Which was kind of notable, since the other three starters in his own infield that day happened to be Fielder, Rickie Weeks and David Wright.

B.J. Upton
AP Photo/Charles KrupaB.J. Upton had 11 stolen bases in 50 games for the Devil Rays last season.
Just a few weeks after that Futures Game, Upton was in the big leagues -- at age 19 -- and his manager back then, Lou Piniella, was comparing him to Alex Rodriguez.

So who would have seen this coming? Who would have seen where B.J. Upton is now, in the spring of 2007?

Who would have seen him storing five different gloves in his locker? Who would have seen the St. Petersburg Times running a daily chart, chronicling how many innings Upton has logged this spring at five positions (shortstop, second base, third base, center field and right field)?

Who would have seen a time, so soon, when Upton's job description was: super-utility man in training? Or something like that.

Not him. That's for sure.

"I don't know what happened," said B.J. Upton.

Well, basically, baseball happened.

There are, in fact, many invaluable baseball lessons in the fascinating saga of B.J. Upton. About the unpredictability of the baseball draft. About the dangers of piling too many burdens on the backs of teenagers. And, certainly, about the frustrating history of the Devil Rays.

But there's another important lesson we should all remember about that saga:

It isn't over yet.

"I think some people think I'm older than I am," Upton said, on a day when he spent the morning working on his double-play pivot at second base and then played center field in a Grapefruit League game. "But I'm not. I'm still only 22.

"I think a lot of people forget age is a factor in this game. They see LeBron James coming in at 18, 19 in the NBA and making an impact. But you won't find many guys who can do that in baseball. I think there might have been one -- and that's [Ken] Griffey Jr."

Good point. So we need to remind ourselves how many chapters are left in B.J. Upton's biography. But where the plot spins from here is harder to say than ever.

When no one can predict where a guy will be playing tomorrow, how are we supposed to know what he'll be doing five years from now? Nobody ever said this guy would be another Griffey Jr. But no one expected he'd be Chone Figgins Jr., either.

"The thing about B.J. is, he came to the majors way too soon," said his manager, Joe Maddon. "And with that, I think, there has been this enormous amount of pressure to be this starting prodigy shortstop. And quite frankly, he wasn't ready for that."

So what happened when Upton reached the big leagues before his time? He found himself stuck on the wrong end of America's giant sports X-ray machine, naturally.

Which meant his faults -- primarily, his defensive faults -- were being picked apart before he ever had a chance to fix them. And all that scrutiny just might have a lot to do with why he still hasn't fixed them. And very possibly, his team theorized, it also helped explain why even his once-spectacular offensive game has started to backslide.

"So I thought, 'Let's take the pressure off him,'" Maddon said. "I want him to think defense is secondary right now. I want him to primarily think about offense. And by that, I mean hitting and baserunning and learning the game in general.

"With that, that means he's going to be playing all over the place. And playing all over the place means he's probably going to make some mistakes. But I say, 'Go ahead and make them.' I'm saying he's probably going to make less [mistakes] if he goes out there with a little more cavalier attitude. I'm just trying to make him think different."

Great idea. But what no one knows -- yet -- is whether this is the right way to get him to that place. After all, if a guy's biggest problem is his defense, is it going to make things better or worse to toss him into a constantly spinning defensive Cuisinart?

"I thought, 'Let's take the pressure off him.' I want him to think defense is secondary right now. I want him to primarily think about offense. And by that, I mean hitting and baserunning and learning the game in general."
-- Devil Rays manager Joe Maddon
on B.J. Upton

Much as the world admires Maddon's knack for innovative thinking, there is a lot of head-scratching going on about this experiment around the rest of the sport. Even Upton's agent, Larry Reynolds, admits he finds this philosophy "confusing."

"But I've learned, through the years, that you have to be patient," Reynolds said, "because you never know what's going on behind the scenes."

Behind the scenes, it's apparent that the Devil Rays wouldn't be going this route unless they felt Upton was still an important part of their future. But the guy in the test tube seems to be unsure himself where this project is leading -- even though he's willing to do whatever they ask him to do if it means staying in the big leagues.

"It's not going to come overnight," Upton said. "There have been guys in this game for 10, 15 years, and they're still learning. I've only been in it five, and I've got a lot more to learn. So there will be some things that happen, and I'm not going to like all of them. But as long as you learn from it, that's all you can ask."

Then again, the Devil Rays expect to learn from this, too. Maddon says that, by bouncing around the field, Upton eventually will "show us what his best position is." And that's fine with the guy doing the bouncing.

But some dreams die harder than other dreams. And this is a fellow whose life-long dream of becoming an all-star shortstop is still airing regularly on the flat-screen theater in his brain.

"I still believe I can play it," Upton said, "and play it well."

But he also knows he has committed 199 errors in four professional seasons -- most of them at short. And he knows there's "no excuse" for that. So he understands why this team is now asking him to do everything but rake the mound and announce the lineups.

Five years from now, if this was B.J. Upton's call, he would like to find himself either back at shortstop or playing center field -- because he feels most comfortable "in the middle of the field," he says.

But if he could look backward instead of forward, he sometimes wishes he could push an imaginary rewind button, go back in time to when he was 19 and not reach the big leagues when he did.

"I think, looking back at it now, maybe if I didn't get called up that year, and I had to spend that extra two or three months in Triple-A ... I may not have run into this problem," he said. "If I could do it all over again, I think maybe I'd get my work in there and develop there and don't come here [until he was ready]."

Unfortunately, technology hasn't advanced to the point where he (or anyone else) can do it all over again. So he's stuck with this life, and his five gloves, and his five positions, and his own little "Where's B.J." chart in the newspaper.

But even before his team started pointing him toward all these different spots on the diamond, he says, he'd already concluded exactly what they'd concluded -- that he needs to expunge the word, "pressure," from his dictionary.

"I think maybe at one point, I might have put a lot of pressure on myself," Upton said. "And I think that might have been some of the problem. But now, I'm just going back to having fun, man, and playing pressure-free. So that's my main focus. I don't think there would have been any pressure even if I was playing one position.

"So my main thing this year was just to have fun. Growing up, you played, you had fun. My first two years, I had a lot of fun playing. And I think those were some of my best years. Maybe not defensively, but even then, I was 18, 19 years old. So I still had fun. I knew I had a lot of work to do, but I was prepared to do it. Now I'm older. I've been in the big leagues. And I've still got a lot to learn. But fun is the biggest key."

"I think maybe at one point, I might have put a lot of pressure on myself. And I think that might have been some of the problem. But now, I'm just going back to having fun, man, and playing pressure-free. So that's my main focus."
-- B.J. Upton

At this point, his definition of fun would be (what else?) 500 at-bats in the big leagues this year. And that's not out of the question if all goes right. But for that to happen, Upton has to do more than merely avoid making another 50 errors.

He needs to turn back into the offensive terror who, just two years ago, was spewing 18 homers, 44 stolen bases and 60 extra-base hits across the International League landscape. But that guy who got just six extra-base hits in 50 big-league games after his call-up last season? That guy isn't what anyone had in mind.

Upton insists he doesn't think his stroke got fouled up because he was stressing about his defense. He "just got away from what I used to do. That's all," he said. And now that he's reunited with his old minor-league hitting guru, new Rays hitting coach Steve Henderson, he sounds confident he'll rediscover his old swing.

He also sounds confident he'll prove, once and for all, that he -- and his friends, Delmon Young and Elijah Dukes -- are not the trouble-makers they've been made out to be. In Upton's case, there isn't much more than a DUI last summer and maybe a misconstrued quote or two to fuel that image. But it seems to be there, anyway.

"I think something was put out that I'm a young punk," Upton said, firmly. "But people who know me know I've never been that way. Even as a kid, I've always been a quiet guy who'd never say much. So I don't know how that would translate into me being a young punk."

Well, there is only one way to convince the world of that -- just as there's only one way to prove he still can be the star he seemed destined to be. And that's to back it up on a big-league stage. Which is all the manager ever hoped for when he devised this plan in the first place.

"Now the pressure's not on him to be the next Derek Jeter at shortstop," Joe Maddon said. "Now he can be the first B.J. Upton."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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