03/01/12 1:48 PM EST
Upton benefits from both youth and experience
Dynamic Rays center fielder just 27, but entering eighth season
By Bill Chastain / MLB.com
To Rays fans, it might seem like Upton has been around forever, so it's hard to fathom that he is entering his eighth Major League season at the ripe old age of 27.
"It just kind of happened so fast," said Upton of the 820 Major League games in his rear-view mirror. "Now being to the point where I am, it's kind of weird.
"I'm still not an old man; I'm just 27. I think that just says a lot about the organization having trust in the young guys. ... You know, letting guys come up and play. That's part of the reason I'm in the position I am now. They gave me an opportunity at a young age. They just kind of let me go through it, so I think that's why you can kind of call me an old guy, so to speak."
Upton is such a gifted athlete that the moon has always been forecast for him. At no time did he fuel those expectations more than during the 2008 playoffs, when he hit seven home runs in 16 games -- one home run shy of the Major League record for a single postseason.
Unfortunately for Upton, he's never totally fulfilled the high expectations put on him. After watching him play on any given day, any fan can swear Upton is the best player in baseball -- he can hit for power, throw and run. But while he's hit 18 and 23 home runs the past two seasons with 42 and 36 stolen bases, his batting averages have been just .237 and .243.
Rays manager Joe Maddon doesn't believe Upton should necessarily be judged by his batting average.
"We look at those other things, like extra-base hits," Maddon said, pointing at Upton's 114 extra-base hits the past two seasons. "He's got really good decision-making at the plate, a discerning eye, [he plays] tremendous defense. I think his baserunning has gotten better over the last couple of years. So I don't really [dwell] on the batting average as much. But I think everything else is getting better."
Upton doesn't mind addressing his batting average.
"A guy told me a long time ago, it's about production," Upton said. "The production numbers are there -- the RBIs, the home runs, the runs scored. But I think if I get the batting average better, the rest of it is going up, too. It's something I look at but nothing I'm going to dwell on or overdo."
No matter what Upton hits, he remains a weapon in the field, where he is a highly appreciated asset for the pitching staff.
"Nobody in baseball plays a better center field than B.J., the ground that he covers and how easy he makes it look," David Price said. "He takes away a bunch of singles, and he still takes away doubles and triples at the wall. There are balls off the bat when you're pitching or in the dugout and you're like, 'That's a double,' and then he's under it. That's pretty impressive. He's very good at what he does."
Upton is eager for the coming season.
"I think I've been looking forward to it since about a month into the offseason," Upton said. "All of us are ready to get back into it, especially knowing what we have coming back on this team, and also seeing the pieces we added over time."
Upton is conscious about what others expect of him, but he won't try to do anything different this season.
"No, [I'm going to] just go out and do what I can do to help this team win," Upton said. "Hopefully, [I'll] play a little better than I have the last couple of years. You know, I finished last year strong. And my main goal is to pick up where I left off."
Maddon believes Upton is "arriving at that sweet spot" of his career.
"When you have all those expectations attached to you as a young player, we have no idea what that looks like, what that means," Maddon said. "And he's had that, and he's had to do a lot of his learning right here. I know I like what I'm seeing right now."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.