Spring Training is the time when we all need a player we can dream about. Rays center fielder B.J. Upton is making it clear that at the ripe age of 25, we can dream about him.
Manager Joe Maddon said that if Upton plays the way they believe he can, "He [can] change everything." Part of what has made Upton's career to this point seemingly disappointing is what Kemer Brett once called the "curse of unlimited potential." Upton acknowledges this. "But," he said, "I feel as if everything is falling in place."
We all remember what Upton was supposed to be when he arrived in Tampa Bay in 2004. But Upton switched positions from short to third to designated hitter to left, eventually to second, and finally landed in center, and he has yielded a career batting average of .266 and an OPS of .762. He hit 24 homers, batted .300 and had a .386 on-base percentage in 2007, but in '08 was hindered by problems in the back of his left (non-throwing) shoulder -- with the exception of eight homers in the postseason. Then in '09, it took until Memorial Day weekend for Upton to cross the Mendoza Line, and he struggled most of the season, with the exception of June.
"He never made excuses about the shoulder," said Maddon.
"It wasn't going to do anyone any good to make excuses," said Upton. "I think the operation was on Dec. 10 . It never got back to normal."
The shoulder problems appear to be history. Upton spent the winter in the St. Petersburg area, working at the Trop with tireless hitting coach Derek Shelton, who came to the Rays from Cleveland this offseason. Their relationship was a hit from the start.
"There's no question the shoulder was bothering him more than he let on to anyone," said Shelton. "We worked on a few things this winter. He was drifting into the ball, and we worked on his setup, his getting ready to hit. He worked at it, he took to it. When he gets the bat cocked, he gets it down to the contact position as quickly and as powerfully as anyone I've ever seen. It's unbelievable."
"There have been some frustrations, some disappointments," said Upton. "But that's all in the past. I am completely healthy. I feel as good and as positive as I ever have. People say they see it in my body language, and they're right. It all seems right."
The decline in Upton's line-drive percentage last season underscores the obvious physical problems. But this spring, the ball has been jumping off his bat and gets the Rays thinking about the possibilities if this fleet, athletic center fielder hits 30-40 home runs.
"We have a lot of tools on this team," said Maddon. "They're so young, so athletic. This could be a lot of fun."
And arguably close to the best athlete of them all, 23-year-old Desmond Jennings, will begin the season in Triple-A.
If the Rays were in any other division, they would be the favorites. Unfortunately for this team, whose revenues barely rose in 2009 after making the World Series, it lives in the land of the two highest payrolls in baseball -- the Yankees and Red Sox.
"It's our reality," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We have to deal with it."
Over the last two years, the Rays have been to the World Series and averaged 91 wins each year, and while they realize retaining free agents Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena at the end of the season is a long shot, if they are as good as they believe, they can play out the year and try to get deep into October.
Not only are the Rays the most athletic team in the American League East, they may be the most versatile. It starts with Ben Zobrist, who should have finished in the top five in the AL MVP Award voting last season. He tied Mark Teixeira for third in the league in OPS behind Joe Mauer and Kevin Youkilis. He hit 27 homers. Oh yes, and he did it starting at seven different defensive positions.
Add in 25-year-old Sean Rodriguez, a converted outfielder in the Angels organization (traded for Scott Kazmir last September), and Maddon has another player who can start at second, three outfield positions, third and fill at short. If Matt Joyce hits right-handers and can fill a role in right field, Maddon can use Zobrist, Rodriguez and Joyce in a unique second base-right field platoon.
If you prefer more cerebral stats, Zobrist led the AL East in WAR (wins above replacement value) in 2009. Among position players, Derek Jeter was second and Evan Longoria was third. Crawford was fifth.
"Coming to this team, they can hit for average, hit the ball out of the park and run like crazy," said Shelton. "It's scary."
Maddon pointed out that Pena has his swing back after breaking his hand last season, a season in which he still hit 39 homers.
"There's no question we didn't play very well down the stretch," Maddon said. "Our bullpen had its problems. But we hope that's been addressed."
They got Rafael Soriano to close, which should take the pressure off the setup men.
But the most important thing for the pitching will be the development of David Price and Wade Davis, potential top-of-the-rotation starters who'll step in with James Shields, Matt Garza and last year's 13-game winner, Jeff Niemann. During Spring Training in 2009, Niemann was nearly traded. But then, he learned to calm himself, created the downhill angle his 6-foot-9 frame should allow and became a prime starter. Waiting in the wings is another eye-opener in Jeremy Hellickson.
"I look at that team and I see that Longoria is a game-changer, Crawford is a game-changer, Pena is a game-changer, [Jason] Bartlett was arguably the best shortstop in the league last year and Zobrist was nearly the MVP," said one opposing GM. "They [are] scary."
What makes them even scarier is the specter of Upton putting together his speed, power and athleticism. Monday, as he took batting practice and whistled rocket after rocket through the gaps and beyond the fences in Port Charlotte, Fla., Maddon and Shelton took turns shaking their heads.
"This game is a lot more fun to play when you're happy playing it," Upton said. "It's taken some time, but I'm here. This is the happiest I've ever been. This is going to be fun."
Down the road in Fort Myers, Fla., at Twins camp, Upton's former teammate and fellow victim of unlimited expectations, Delmon Young, is another changed face.
"When have you ever seen me smiling this much?" Young asked. Never. He looks 17 again.
The Twins obtained Young for Bartlett and Garza after the 2007 season, because they thought he would be the right-handed thunder to complement Mauer and Justin Morneau. But his first two seasons in Minnesota have been disappointments; his .308 on-base percentage and 12-homer, 60-RBI line in '09 is not exactly what they expected.
But Young finished strong last season. He went back to using the whole field and forgetting about trying to pull homers. He batted .340 in September and October, which got him to .300 with nine homers after the All-Star break.
This winter, Young worked hard on conditioning, as well as lifestyle. He's dropped more than 35 pounds, his face looks like that of a teenager, and he looks like a new player.
"I feel as if I'm a new player," said Young, who is recognized as highly intelligent by his teammates. "I think I'm finally where I thought I should be five years ago."
Think about the Twins if Francisco Liriano continues throwing as well as he has this spring and see how different they are with a top-of-the-rotation starter. Then think about Young putting it together in the middle of the order with Mauer, Morneau, Jason Kubel and Michael Cuddyer, and the additions of Orlando Hudson and J.J. Hardy in the middle of the infield.
"The Twins can be a serious playoff contender," said one GM. "But one of the most incredible stories this season is that the Twins have a higher payroll than the Dodgers."
That's another L.A. story. Delmon is a Minneapolis story.
On the other side of Fort Myers at Red Sox camp, all those New Englanders who make their way around the dust of the Minor League complex quickly learned to dream about José Iglesias, the 20-year-old Cuban refugee shortstop with the hands of future Hall of Famer Omar Vizquel and the energy of Dustin Pedroia.
"This kid wants to learn everything," said Boston's Minor League hitting instructor Victor Rodriguez. "Some kids go out at night, he shows up at coaches' houses and wants to talk baseball. He's the first one at the park and the last to leave. He's nonstop."
Iglesias, an MLB.com Top 50 Prospect, now speaks nearly flawless English, just six months after his signing.
"His talent is obvious," said manager Terry Francona. "But this is a kid who wants to do the right thing, wants to learn, listens to everyone."
And onto whom has he latched?
One day last week, Pedroia walked up to Iglesias in the clubhouse and invited him to come to his house for a cookout and meet the family.
Another day, Pedroia thought Iglesias didn't do one drill correctly. "Listen," screamed Pedroia, "you're a Red Sox [player]. Here, I'm Fidel Castro, and you're doing what I tell you."
Iglesias' cousin is Yulieski Gourriel, who impressed at the 2006 and '09 World Baseball Classics and is considered the best player in Cuba (he was also Kendry Morales' roommate at a Cuban sports academy). Someone told Pedroia that the Red Sox were signing Gourriel and that since he's a second baseman, Pedroia would have to switch positions.
Iglesias was doubled up laughing. "I'll have you both on boats back to Cuba," Pedroia yelled.
Iglesias laughed. Then they hugged.
"I've never met anyone like Petey," said Iglesias. "I love him. He is my big brother."
After a couple of weeks in camp, Red Sox officials are convinced that Iglesias has such balance at the plate that he is going to hit, and that he will develop gap power. His plate discipline will improve.
"Jose loves the game, and he takes in everything," said Pedroia. "He is really smart. Baseball is only about winning, and he's going to help us win someday."
"I tell my family, 'I love it here,'" said Iglesias. "I want to win for the Red Sox, and I am going to be an American. I just want everyone to meet Dustin Pedroia."
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less