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Thursday, April 1, 2010
Justin Upton approaching elite status

By Jim Caple
ESPN.com

With the possible exception of the American League clubhouse at an All-Star Game, the greatest collection of baseball talent in recent years might have been the front yard of the Upton household in Chesapeake, Va. That's where Justin and B.J. Upton honed their skills playing endless hours of baseball against each other.

Justin Upton
Justin Upton batted .300 and drove in 86 runs in only his second full season in the majors last year.

"We played all the time," Justin said. "I'd pitch to him and throw as hard as I could, and he'd pitch and throw it as hard as he could. Wherever we hit it, we would call it out or safe, double, single or homer. We had our home run boundaries. It was always fun, low-scoring games because we were 40 feet away throwing as hard as we could."

So it wasn't much different from the games you and your siblings played. Except, of course, the Uptons didn't just pretend they were good. They were good, and they got better with every pitch and every disputed hit.

"There were a lot of arguments over what was a hit," Justin said. "We were always hitting it to the neighbors' houses. Home plate was our front porch on the sidewalk. A tree in the middle of the yard was first base; a sewage thing was second base. We set up third base on the corner of the driveway. And then there were a middle house and two houses to the right that were home runs."

Three years younger than his sibling, Justin endured the many competition losses and beatdowns all little brothers suffer. But in his case, that competition and punishment made him a tougher, better player. "Seeing him play on all the teams he played on in high school and making it to the minors and the big leagues made me want to do the same thing," Justin said. "There was a certain drive there."

Justin grew up to be the first overall pick in the 2005 draft (B.J. was merely the second overall pick in the '02 draft -- take that, big brother!), the 2007 minor league player of the year, a big leaguer at age 19 and an All-Star at age 21. He hit .300 with 26 home runs, 84 runs, 86 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in his second full season last year, marks that only Orlando Cepeda matched at the age of 21.

All of this was enough to convince the Diamondbacks that it made financial sense to sign Upton to a six-year, $51.25 million contract extension that will cover several years of arbitration and lock him up for two years beyond when he could otherwise have become a free agent. Instead of aiming for a neighbor's house, or the tree in the middle of the yard, or that "sewage thing," Upton can take aim at the swimming pool at Arizona's Chase Field until at least 2015.

"I've had the luxury of seeing him since he was 17 and joined the organization," said Arizona manager A.J. Hinch, who was the farm director when Upton first signed with the club in 2005. "He's had a bull's-eye on his chest from opponents, from fans, from media, from everybody, from the day he signed professionally. And even before that. He can handle the responsibility of being Justin Upton, which now includes a healthy contract."

Josh Byrnes Justin plays with an edge, and that's a good thing for all of us.

-- Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes

"It's definitely a responsibility," Upton said. "We have a young core of guys here, and they've expressed they want me to be a part of it, and it's my responsibility to hold up my end. But the contract hasn't changed anything in my day's work. I still work hard."

The contract is similar to deals signed recently by Hanley Ramirez, Nick Markakis and Ryan Zimmerman, but also to a deal signed by a player to whom Upton has drawn early comparisons: Ken Griffey Jr., who signed a four-year, $24 million deal in 1992 at the age of 22.

Griffey was already a star at the time, and the contract paid off huge for the Mariners when Junior continued to improve and become one of the greatest players in the history of the game. Griffey and Upton have developed a bit of a friendship in recent years, with Griffey lending advice to Upton.

"He actually helped me out a lot last year," Upton said. "Just the mind-set he has [in baseball]. When it comes down to it, you're playing a baseball game for a living, and so make it fun and have fun doing it. When things are going bad, smile and continue playing hard."

Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes says he dislikes the term "face of the franchise" and stresses that Upton is still 22 and maturing at an "appropriate rate." Still, he adds, "[Diamondbacks bench coach] Kirk Gibson says Justin's intensity is a good thing. That will be a lot of our team's personality because Justin plays with an edge, and that's a good thing for all of us."

Upton says you're never too young to assume a leadership role. "It's all about how you go about your business and how your teammates perceive you. If they perceive you as a leader and you play the game the right way, then they'll follow," he said. "That's the goal of all the young guys here. We've had some faces come in and out, and we've got some of the old guys who've been around for a while. I think we all lead each other. If we play the game the right way, then it's kind of a domino effect, and everyone picks each other up."

The Diamondbacks reached the postseason in Upton's first season in 2007. But they tumbled to second place with an 82-80 record in 2008, and a last-place finish last year, when manager Bob Melvin lost his job in the middle of the season. Depending on the health of Brandon Webb, Arizona has a potentially dynamic rotation with Webb, Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson. If the Diamondbacks can also avoid striking out every other at-bat -- Upton's 137 strikeouts last season don't seem bad compared to Mark Reynolds' 223 -- they could contend for the National League West title.

"The way we finished the season last year, guys went home with a bad taste in their mouths," Upton said. "You don't want to go out like that. It definitely burns you all offseason. But we have some changes, new faces in the clubhouse. A.J. emphasized leaving last season behind and turning this season around. We have new guys and a fresh start. There's no reason to dwell on the past."

Especially when you have a $51.25 million contract, an older brother to fight for bragging rights, a swimming pool to aim for, and an almost limitless career beyond that.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.