PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- B.J. Upton has simply teased Rays fans about his vast potential. Tampa Bay's young center fielder has just scratched the surface of where he's headed. And that's a scary thought for the Rays' foes in the American League East.

And if indeed Upton, 24, is anything like the player he looked to be in the 2008 playoffs, there's a good chance Tampa Bay will be headed back to the postseason in '09.

"The year before, I talked about how B.J. is just different," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "When he hits the ball well, it has a different sound. He's got that different sound. And not everybody has that. He does.

"He's special. He's special with the bat. He's special on defense. He's a special athlete and baseball player. And the thing about B.J. to this point, he's been a great athlete who is learning to become a baseball player. I thought he made significant improvement the last couple of months last year on how to become a baseball player."

Upton played in pain in 2008. Throughout his career, he has endured the prospect of a bad left shoulder creeping up on him at any point of the season to issue bad news.

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"I've known something's been wrong in there for a couple of years," Upton said. "Every year, I kind of knew it was going to happen sooner or later. Normally it seemed to happen toward the end of the season. Unfortunately, last year, it happened early and stayed with me the rest of the season."

Upton opted to play through the pain with few, other than his teammates, knowing anything about his plight.

"It was something I chose to do," Upton said. "I probably could have shut it down if I wanted to, but I didn't."

Upton hit .273 with nine home runs and 67 RBIs, which looked like a considerable dive from the lofty plateau he reached in 2007, when he hit .300 with 24 home runs and 82 RBIs. But there was a reasonable explanation for the drop in production.

"During the season, I kind of backed off a little bit and just kind of told myself to stay on the field," Upton said. "Even it affects you at the plate -- just kind of take what they give you.

"[The] playoffs were another story -- let it all hang out. If it goes, it goes. It was definitely too late to turn back then."

Upton hit seven home runs during the postseason to tie an American League record for a single postseason, matching Troy Glaus, who turned the trick in 2002. And he fell one short of the overall mark held by Barry Bonds ('02) and Carlos Beltran ('04).

"Toward the end of last season, we cut down on his batting practice," Maddon said. "We cut down on the number of reps and his shoulder starts feeling better. Then he gets to the playoffs and he was very frisky, as you saw. As we keep that well, and we're able to monitor the number of swings."

Upton underwent successful surgery to repair the labrum in his left shoulder on Nov. 11. Given the fact his shoulder is now repaired and the Rays are coming off their best season, not to mention his incredible postseason, Upton is in a good mood these days.

"Especially after coming off what we did last year," Upton said. "And I'm going to be healthy. And the rest of the guys are going to be healthy. Last year, we played a lot of the season with guys who weren't healthy. [It] definitely makes it exciting coming back this year after everything fell into place last year."

Upton said there is no timetable for when he will return.

"They keep emphasizing to take it slow," Upton said. "If I feel OK to go on Opening Day, then that's what will happen. But we won't know until later in the spring."

Upton feels he can improve on what he's already shown as a Major Leaguer.

"Oh yeah," Upton said. "I can definitely get better every year. We'll just see where it takes me. I'm not going to put any added pressure on myself. [I'm going to] just go out and play my game -- and whatever happens, happens.

Upton will never lack in the area of confidence.

"I'm always confident," Upton said. "Stats or not, if they're there, great, but I don't change my approach for anybody. If I'm going well, it doesn't change. If I'm going bad, it doesn't change. Either way, I'm going to be confident."

And where Upton is concerned, the Rays have plenty to be confident about.