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Diamondbacks' Justin Upton Primed for 'Incredible Season'

Feb 27, 2011 – 3:15 PM
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Jeff Fletcher

Jeff Fletcher %BloggerTitle%

Justin Upton SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Justin Upton knows what it's like to be the No. 1 pick in the country, to reach the majors and struggle, to put the pieces together and be an All-Star, to then step back and have a disappointing season and to be on the trading block.

And he's still younger than Buster Posey.

Because Upton's name has been in headlines for five years -- and his family's name for longer than that, thanks to his brother, B.J. -- it's easy to forget Justin is still just 23 years old, five months younger than last year's NL Rookie of the Year.

As the Diamondbacks try to snap their streak of two consecutive last-place finishes, they are trying to walk the fine line between hanging the hopes of the franchise on Upton and being patient with their young star's normal growing pains.

"J-Up has the ability to carry us for stretches," manager Kirk Gibson said, "but I wouldn't expect him to or want him to think he has to."

The expectations, natural as they were, created part of the problem for Upton last year. After hitting .300 with 26 homers in an All-Star season in 2009, he dropped to .273 with 17 homers and he struck out a career-high 152 times.

"I've had one good season and the others have been kind of mediocre," Upton said. "I had a good season in 2009 and I got greedy and wanted more, but it was in a negative light. Like I didn't feel like I did enough."

Upton's new approach is to work hard, in the gym and the batting cage, but not to "grind on myself." He spent his entire winter coming to the ballpark in Phoenix, making his body stronger, particularly the left shoulder that caused him trouble last year.

Upton's swing has been slightly re-tooled, Gibson said, to help him stay on the ball better (read: not strike out so much.)

"He's been outstanding," Gibson said. "I like the way he went about his business. I like the way he's swinging the bat. He put a lot of thought into it."

"I think he's (Upton) going to have an incredible season. I really do."
-- Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers
General manager Kevin Towers, who took over last September, said the key for Upton is simply to stay healthy. He hasn't played more than 138 games in any of his three full big league season. Towers also said that Upton appears to be in the right frame of mind this spring.

"I think there's been a maturation process this spring versus what I've seen in the past," Towers said. "I think he's feeling less pressure. I think the last couple years there has been a lot of pressure on him to be the superstar. If you try to live up to those expectations at a very young age, it's very difficult. He's more comfortable in his body and where he's at. Let the game come to you and do what you do well. I think he's going to have an incredible season. I really do."

And this is from a guy who spent part of his winter considering trading Upton.

The Diamondacks didn't exactly hang a "For Sale" sign around Upton's neck, but Towers did not dispute the fact that he was listening to offers for Upton. Upton's name was the center of baseball's hot-stove world for a few weeks in December, before it eventually became clear that no one was willing to meet the high price Towers was asking.

"I tried not to look at it as much as possible," Upton said. "I was getting all these texts. What do you think? What have you heard? I took it in stride. I had fun with it. I was always answering questions (from friends). It became more of a light situation."

Towers said he never had a formal conversation with Upton about the trade situation when it was ongoing or since.

"He understood where the team was at the last couple years, and my job was to make the ballclub better," Towers said. "If we were able to get multiple pieces back (for Upton) that could make the club better, we'd do that. If not, he'd be here. I think part of the maturation process is understanding that this is a business and your name could be out there."

Said Upton: "If I was the piece that had to go to make the team better, that's what he had to do. Looking at it from a business side, I understand. Now I'm here. I'm a D-back and I want to put it all on the table for them."
Jeff Fletcher
Jeff Fletcher | Twitter: @JeffFletcherAOL

Jeff covered the A's and the Giants at the Santa Rosa Press Democrat for 11 years and was a sports reporter at the Los Angeles Times. He is a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, Baseball Writers Association of America member, Baseball America contributor and APSE award winner.
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