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Rays' Upton leads group of players with something to prove

At age 25, B.J. Upton is already in his sixth major league season and has gone through at least as many identities.

A five-tool shortstop that Tampa Bay picked No. 2 overall in the 2002 draft, Upton was a prodigy who made a meteoric rise through the minors to make his major league debut at age 19 in 2004; then he was an inconsistent fielder who didn't make it back to the big leagues until 2006; the center field savant; the 20-20 slugging speedster in 2007; the postseason hero who hit seven home runs in the '08 playoffs; the indifferent young star who doesn't hustle; and the struggling bat looking to return to form after an injury-plagued 2009.

All of which makes 2010 a critical juncture in Upton's career and a chance to prove that he is still on track to be the star everyone has always expected him to be. And he knows it.

"I just want to take all those things from 19 to 25 and [keep] the positives and take the negatives and filter them out," Upton said.

His 2009 season was especially tough. Shoulder surgery severely limited his offseason workouts, and he struggled at the plate all season, batting just .241 with a .313 on-base percentage (down from over .380 in both 2007 and '08) and only nine home runs. He led off until August, when manager Joe Maddon demoted him to ninth in his batting order, noting that Upton's shoulder "probably bothered him more than he was willing to say."

After intense offseason work, Upton is off to an encouraging start. Though he is still batting just .234 after Monday's win in Boston, Upton has slugged four home runs, stolen three bases and, perhaps even more importantly, drawn seven walks in 54 plate appearances. That's nearly a 13 percent walk rate, not far from his career-best 15.1 percent in 2008 and much better than the paltry 9.1 percent of '09. In the past, he has shown both power (24 home runs in '07) and speed (at least 42 stolen bases each of past two years) but hasn't put the two together in a single season. Admittedly, the first 13 games of the season is a small sample size, but he's on a very early pace for a 40-40 season. The Rays -- and Upton -- would certainly be thrilled with 30-30 or, considering his skill set, something closer to a 25-homer, 40-stolen-base season.

Upton wasted no time putting the 2009 season behind him and starting fresh. In November, he learned that new Rays hitting coach Derek Shelton was a fellow offseason resident of the Tampa area, and the two started hitting workouts just after Thanksgiving -- a time when most players are still on vacation -- and continued them three days a week until the start of spring training.

"He probably did as much or more than any major-league player that early in the offseason," Shelton said.

Added Upton, "I had to, man. I didn't want to go through what I went through last year. I had to be on top of it and not play catch up, but just maintain it."

There was some video study, but mostly just swing after swing after swing of batting practice at Tropicana Field. Because of the injury to his shoulder, Upton had gotten into some bad habits, and Shelton primarily worked to get his hands in a better position at the start of his swing.

It likely aided his motivation that the Rays took him to an arbitration hearing in the offseason, despite the two sides differing on just $300,000 -- Upton had submitted a salary of $3.3 million; the Rays put in for $3 million (and won the hearing). Meanwhile, his younger brother, Justin, All-Star the right fielder for the Diamondbacks was handsomely rewarded with a six-year, $51.25-million extension.

Though he struggled offensively, B.J.'s defense has needed no tune-up. Upton is one of the game's best center fielders, ranking in the top three of the majors each of last two seasons by saving more than 10 runs, as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating.

He has also pledged a better attitude and that all prior indiscretions -- such as his having been benched for not hustling on groundballs -- are behind him.

"The past is the past," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "B.J. understands and everybody in this clubhouse understands that he's a whole lot better than what we saw."

That's true of the Rays, too. After their magical run to the American League pennant in 2008, they took a step back in '09, faltering to a 9-14 April start and finishing with just 84 wins for a distant third place in the division despite having roughly the same roster.

Much like their center fielder, the Rays are looking to maximize their own full potential in 2010. That process began with a major-league best 20-8 spring training record, a success rate that the Rays have exceeded with 10 wins in their first 13 games. They capped that hot start with a four-game sweep at Fenway Park that concluded Monday with an 8-2 win that featured a three-run homer by Upton.

And so Upton and the Rays headline a group of players with something extra to prove this season, a list that also includes:

Bradley's off-field troubles have been well documented, the most recent of which involved him making an obscene gesture to Rangers fans less than one week into the season, and come on the heels of a controversy-laden 2009 that ended when he made critical comments about his then-employer, the Cubs, leading to his suspension for the final two weeks of the season and ultimately an offseason trade to Seattle. Not only does Bradley need to prove he can be a model citizen but also that he can be a consistent hitter again. In 2008 with Texas he led the AL with a .999 OPS, which fell by more than 200 points to .775 with the Cubs in '09, thanks to a .267 average and only 12 home runs. If Bradley has success as a power bat -- so far he has two home runs but a woeful .135 average -- then it would also validate the Mariners' extreme roster construction plans with near total emphasis on defense.

It was just three years ago when the Royals third baseman was more than a can't miss player -- he was considered the heir apparent to George Brett, the Hall of Famer and franchise's alltime best player. So far Gordon hasn't come closing to living up to that impossible standard, mired in large part by injuries (torn labrum in his hip, broken thumb, et al.). The No. 2 overall pick of the 2005 draft -- in which other top-10 picks included Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki -- made his first start of the season on Sunday and is overdue for his breakout season. If he plays at even most of his potential, Gordon would join teammate Billy Butler in giving the Royals a dynamic young pair of bats in an otherwise mediocre lineup.

The Phillies' 2008 World Series hero seemed to take a step back in '09 with a significantly worse ERA (which went from 3.09 to 4.32) and 10-11 record (after going a combined 29-15 the two previous seasons) despite a strikeout-to-walk ratio that was better than the year before and a WHIP that was only slightly worse. Those numbers seemed to suggest he was mostly the victim of bad luck, until the postseason, when he had a 7.58 ERA in four starts, never lasting more than 5 1/3 innings. In wanting to reassert himself as one of the NL's best young pitchers -- and assure Phillies fans that Cliff Lee was superfluous as a second ace -- Hamels is looking for an improved 2010, which he's had so far through three starts (2-1, 3.86 ERA).

At the time of his 50-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs last May, the Dodgers left fielder was raking: .348, .492 OBP and six home runs in 27 games. Getting caught had its toll, as Ramirez finished with just a .269 average, .389 OBP and 13 home runs in his final 77 games upon returning to the lineup in July. He'll turn 38 next month and is headed for free agency yet again, as he completes the second season of his two-year, $45-million contract. In classic Manny fashion, he sent mixed signals in spring training about his intentions for next season, but if he wants to sign another big contract and avoid the fate of some other recent aging sluggers -- such as the Twins' Jim Thome, who has been reduced to a reserve role, and Jermaine Dye, who remains unemployed -- Ramirez will have to continue his torrid start. So far he's hitting .375 (.436 OBP) and popped a game-winning pinch-hit home run on Sunday, his second homer of the year.

In November 2006 GQ touted that "not since Clinton picked Gore has a left side looked more potent than in the New York Mets' infield." Reyes and Wright were -- and still are -- the young stars of Queens expected to lead the club to annual playoff appearances. Instead, they struggled through disappointing collapses at the end of 2007 and '08 and an '09 in which Reyes played only 36 games due to injury and Wright became a singles-and-doubles hitter while enduring his own stint on the disabled list. After seemingly being sapped of his power last season -- for any of a number of reasons, including the spacious new home ballpark, a more contact-oriented approach at the plate, a concussion or a weak surrounding lineup -- Wright is off to a good start with three home runs in his first 12 games and a .466 OBP, thanks to 17 walks, a high rate that may persist as long as free-agent left fielder Jason Bay (.217 average, .321 OBP, 0 HR, 2 RBIs) struggles behind him in the lineup. Reyes, meanwhile, is healthy again but a bit slower to return to form, batting just .154 with a .209 OBP, no home runs and only one stolen base.

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