Upton up for new challenge
Infielder ready to show skills at different positions this spring
ST. PETERSBURG -- B.J. Upton could walk into a clubhouse of any professional sport and nobody would question whether he belonged. He just has that something that's familiar to all great athletes.
Athleticisim has never been Upton's problem.
On any given night after joining the Rays in 2006, Upton's acrobatic play at third base could have fueled a play-of-the-day defensive jewel for the sports highlights -- jaw-droppers, every one of them.
Unfortunately, Upton had to deal with the mundane everyday plays in between, which is where he encountered difficulties. And when a choice has to be made in baseball between consistency and athleticism, consistency always wins out.
Thus, at the ripe old age of 22, the enigmatic Upton finds himself in limbo this spring. Akinori Iwamura will get the initial nod at third and Ben Zobrist will continue to play shortstop, making Upton the player without a position.
To remedy the situation, the Rays will look at Upton in a new light.
"We're going to give B.J. the opportunity to play several different positions," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Our primary goal with him is to really reestablish his offense. With that, we're going to try to de-emphasize the pressure I feel we put on him in the past at one particular defensive position.
"Eventually, he's going to show us the right position. He was kind of fast-tracked here, and I think we maybe put some undue pressures on this young man. I want to reduce them at this point, let him learn how to be a Major League baseball player. He will tell us what his best position is by how he reacts on the field. But primarily we want to see him hit like we know that he can."
Rays fans can expect to see Upton play third, short, second and center field this spring. And if he plays well enough, there's a good chance he will become the team's super utility man.
The soft-spoken Upton said he's up for the task.
"I'll play wherever they need me," Upton said. "We'll see exactly where that is this spring."
Upton believes the strategy will help him relax.
"I think this whole upcoming season will be totally different for me -- learning what I did last year, and picking up on some of the things," Upton said. "I just think this season will be a little bit different."
Upton's offense was a disappointment in 2006. While he did steal 46 bases in 106 games at Triple-A Durham, and had 11 in 50 games with the Rays, he hit .269 with eight home runs and 41 RBIs at Durham and just .246 with one home run and 10 RBIs for the Rays.
Upton has been working with hitting coach Steve Henderson on improving his offense.
The offense has "always been there," Upton said. "Just last year, it got lost. Hendu and my job this offseason was to find it -- get that thing going the right way."
Henderson's solution has been trying to get the lower half of Upton's body more involved in his swing.
"He did that earlier in his career, but somehow he got away from it," Henderson said. "We need to get him back into it. We're real close to getting him to do it where he's not thinking about it."
Upton looked relaxed after experiencing an offseason that included watching a lot of football and basketball on TV, and a trip to Jamaica for Twins outfielder Mike Cuddyer's wedding.
"It was fun," Upton said. "Got to get down there with the family. [It] definitely cleared my mind, and [I] had a lot of fun."
At one time, the thought of Upton playing anywhere beside shortstop was not a thought Upton cared to entertain. And no doubt a part of his mind still tells him he's a shortstop. Just ask him if he has a preference for a position this year, and an easy smile spreads across his face, followed by a little chuckle.
"I honestly don't know," Upton said. "I'd love to say ... I can't really answer that."
So for now, Upton will have three gloves in his locker, one for third and shortstop, one for second base and another for the outfield. If the experiment works, the Rays' offense will have a serious weapon off the bench.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.