TUCSON - Before Justin Upton was a prodigy, he was a pest. As a 6-year-old, he tagged along with big brother B.J. Upton and current teammate Mark Reynolds as they played baseball on a travel team.
Reynolds never gave a thought to Upton, four years his junior, one day becoming a No. 1 overall draft pick. He just wanted him out of his hair.
“He was always just that annoying little brother running around,” Reynolds said. “Him and my brother just made me and B.J.’s life hell.”
Upton doesn’t paint himself as any sort of phenom, either. While he left high school as a mega-prospect and draws comparisons to Ken Griffey, Jr. for his complete skill set, Upton makes no bones about who was the better baseball player growing up.
“I kind of went up and got my three outs real quick and then started throwing to B.J., and he would launch balls off me,” Upton said. “That’s kind of how it went.”
It worked out well for Reynolds and B.J. Upton, who both made it to the big leagues, but it is Justin who the scouts can’t stop talking about.
He ripped through the minor leagues, hitting .319 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs in 103 games between High-A Visalia and Double-A Mobile last season before being called up as a 19-year-old in August.
He went 3-for-4 in his home debut on Aug. 8, missing the cycle by a single.
But the struggles came as pitchers made adjustments. In 43 games and 140 at-bats, Upton hit .221 with two homers and 11 RBIs.
Still, there were enough individual plays that stood out to make an impression.
“You could definitely see the potential,” said Reynolds, who actually didn’t see Upton play much growing up because of the age difference. “He showed flashes. The older he gets, the more mature he gets, the better he’s going to be. Really, the sky’s the limit for him.”
Even through his struggles, the coaching staff never wavered, and Upton hit .357 with a double, triple and an RBI in the postseason, playing in six of the seven games.
“I’m proud of the fact that he swung the bat well in the playoffs,” Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin said. “That’s what you worry about most, a guy that comes into the big leagues at 19 years old, whether he’s able to handle it emotionally.”
At the tender age of 20, Upton heads into his first spring training game of 2008 entrenched as the starting right fielder for a team that is coming off an appearance in the National League Championship Series.
But he remains low-key, and there are just enough veterans in the clubhouse to make sure his head doesn’t swell.
“You’ve got guys like O-Dawg (Orlando Hudson) who tell you basically that you haven’t done anything yet and there’s a lot of work for you to be doing,” Upton said. “The people around you keep you level-headed. I also come from a family where we always worked hard. No matter where people put you, you’ve got to work to get there.”
Upton proved that by showing up to camp with 10 more pounds of muscle on an already-complete frame, something at which Reynolds marvels.
“I’m 24 right now and I’m still not even close to that,” Reynolds said. “He’s a specimen. Someone with that talent, he’s making the most of it.”