BJ Upton switches to 3B in wake of Huff trade
TOLEDO -- B.J. Upton's immediate future went from cloudy to clear within a few hours Wednesday afternoon after the Tampa Bay front office decided the former top pick would best serve the club by what initially appears to be a temporary move to third base.
Andrew Friedman, the Devil Rays' vice president of baseball operations, announced in an afternoon conference call that Upton would remain at Triple-A Durham in the wake of the trade that sent Aubrey Huff to Houston. However, instead of playing shortstop, which is Upton's preference and primary position, the second overall pick in the 2002 draft will slide over to third, where he will spend a few weeks familiarizing himself with the position in preparation for a call-up to the Major Leagues.
The announcement came four hours after Friedman spoke to the media about the deal in which he acquired utility player Ben Zobrist and right-hander Mitch Talbot. Zobrist will report to Durham, where he will play shortstop.
"I want to be a shortstop," Upton told MLB.com Wednesday afternoon as he prepared for the Triple-A All-Star Game at Fifth Third Field. "But [Friedman] explained the whole situation to me. That's what they want me to do so that's what I have to do. It's what's best for the organization."
"Of course I'm excited about this. And I don't think it will take that long for me to get used to being over there," Upton said. "It's more of a reaction position over there so it might take me a couple of days, but I don't think it will take longer than that."
Friedman said there had been "lots of discussion" internally about moving Upton to third base once talks with Houston intensified. Upton will work with Jimy Williams and the staff at Durham to make the adjustment to third, but there is no clear timetable as to when he will be promoted to Tampa Bay.
The move is also not a signal that the organization has given up on Upton playing shortstop. What happens with Julio Lugo will play a large role in Upton's future. The odds that Lugo might follow Huff out of Tampa before this month's trading deadline remain high, and even if that doesn't happen there is no guarantee the Devil Rays will re-sign Lugo this winter.
"It will be as soon as we feel he's comfortable," Friedman said of Upton's expected promotion. "It's hard to say. It could be two weeks. It could be longer. This is not giving up on him playing shortstop, though, if things stay status quo with Lugo as our shortstop for the rest of the year. In the off-season we'll reconvene and put our heads together and come up with the right course of action for going forward with Upton."
"I talked to him and his reaction was very good," Friedman said. "He's very team-oriented. He sees himself as a shortstop but he's anxious to help out any way he can. He understands this is a short-term thing and that we'll see how it takes form from there."
The biggest question regarding Upton has always been his defense. He committed 53 errors while playing shortstop last season and has made 28 through the midway mark this year. He's made 181 errors throughout his four professional seasons, which includes a 45-game stint with the Devil Rays in 2004.
Upton played the only 13 games of his pro career at third base that season, committing two errors over that stretch. He made nine errors in 16 games at shortstop that season with the glut of miscues leading to a great deal of speculation that the Devil Rays would move him to the outfield. That his younger brother, Justin, whom Arizona made the top pick in the 2005 draft, moved from shortstop to center field upon signing only added fuel to the theory that such a move was possible.
But Tampa Bay insiders say such a conversation has never taken place, internally or with Upton. In fact, despite his error total this season, the club is actually happy with the progress he's made at shortstop.
"I'm 110 percent more comfortable [at shortstop] now," said Upton, who is hitting .269 with six homers, 36 RBIs and an International League-leading 37 steals. "My main focus this year has been defense. Right now I couldn't feel better at short. I would say I was shaky at the beginning of the year, but I'm pretty happy with the way things have been going now. I don't think I've gone backwards. I think I've gone forward."
"Some of it in the beginning of the year was concentration and arm slot. And some things haven't gone my way scorecard wise. But that happens to everyone," Upton said. "I've always been a shortstop, that's all I know. But I'm not a quitter, and I don't like people telling me I can't do things. I was drafted for my defense, not my hitting, and when I got to pro ball it kind of did a turn on me."
Upton added, in a rather matter-of-fact fashion, that he could go and play center field right now if he had to and would be comfortable out there. In a bit of an ironic twist, he says he actually encouraged his brother to switch positions because the Diamondbacks wanted Stephen Drew, who was also in Toledo Wednesday night, to play short.
"If playing center field gets him to the big leagues quicker than I'm all for it," Upton said of his brother.
Upton wants no part of the outfield, though. Long-term, he doesn't want any part of third base, either. But the switch will get him to Tampa Bay quicker and for now, that's all that matters.
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