Lost amid the noise last week over the six-way chase for the AL wild card was the fact that Tim Beckham, the overall number one pick of the 2008 amateur draft, made his major league debut for the Rays. In doing so, he avoided joining the short list of overall number ones who never reached the majors, and while he may not live up to the promise that led to him being tabbed first -- just before the Pirates took Pedro Alvarez and five picks ahead of Buster Posey going to the Giants -- he does have a future in the majors.
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A shortstop from Griffin High School in Griffin, Ga., Beckham was described prior to the 2008 draft by Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein as "without question the toolsiest player in the draft,… A true shortstop with outstanding hitting skills, power potential, plus speed, and good fielding skills." Goldstein quoted one scouting director as comparing him favorably to 2005 overall number one Justin Upton and another calling him "about as safe as it gets" in terms of his elite status.
For Tampa Bay it came down to a choice of Beckham and Posey, another Georgia native. The Rays chose… poorly, though to be fair, the history of high-drafted catchers to that point was a rocky one. Said Andrew Friedman, the team's executive vice president of baseball operations, of Beckham at the time, "We feel like he's got an advanced approach to the game, a genuine enthusiasm for what he does, and we feel like he's got a great chance to be an impact player in the major leagues."
Beckham signed to a record $6.15 million bonus, doing so early enough to play 48 games in 2008, 46 of them at Rookie Level with Princeton of the Appalachian League. He didn't hit all that well (.246/.309/.350 with two homers and six steals) but the following spring, Baseball America ranked him 28th on its Top 100 Prospects list, second on the Rays behind David Price; Baseball Prospectus ranked him 15th in its Top 100 as well. BA gushed about him in its annual Prospect Handbook: "An outstanding athlete with easy actions and great instincts, Beckham has all the tools to be a stellar shortstop… The Rays believe he'll develop 20-homer power with his plus bat speed and leveraged swing."
As a 19-year-old at A-level Hudson Valley in 2009, Beckham hit a thin .275/.328/.389 and made 43 errors in 117 games afield. He had bulked up in his lower body, costing him considerable range, and his throwing was inconsistent. BA cited "lackadaisical footwork" as the cause of his throwing woes and expressed concern about his aggressive approach at the plate, dropping him to 67th on its 2010 Top 100 list and sixth among Rays prospects; BP ranked him 58th in its Top 100. He showed modest progress while hitting .256/.346/.359 with five homers at High-A Charlotte in 2010, increasing his walk rate from six percent to 11 percent and cutting his errors to 25 in 122 games, but dropped off the BA and BP Top 100 lists. Worse, the Rays took a public beating as Posey won NL Rookie of the Year honors and helped the Giants to a world championship.
Entering his age-21 season, Beckham dropped to 15th among Rays prospects via BA's 2011 handbook, which projected him as a future third baseman in an organization that had Evan Longoria locked up for the long haul. He split his season between Double-A Montgomery and Triple-A Durham, hitting .271/.328/.408 with 17 steals and a career-best 12 homers, wowing few but at least casting himself as somebody with a future at the major league level.
Though he continued to draw praise for his work ethic amid his methodical progress, Beckham's career hit a snag early in 2012, when he was suspended 50 games after testing positive for marijuana for the second time. He hit just .256/.325/.361 with six homers in 72 games at Durham, but did show more pop after altering his stance late in the year. He also established his utility with 25 appearances at second base, and was added to the 40-man roster over the winter. He climbed back into the top 10 among Rays prospects in the BA Handbook, which read in part:
"Beckham continues to maintain plus bat speed that generates raw power to all fields. His lack of consistency at the plate comes from his below-average pitch recognition and refusal at times to shorten his swing… His ticket appears to be developing into an offense-minded second baseman, though the Rays have greater need at shortstop."
Wrote BP's Jason Parks in classifying him as a "Factor on the Farm" (a major league-ready non-top prospect):
"Although far from the impact player most thought he would develop into, Beckham has legit baseball skills and has a chance to emerge as a utility option in the short-term and a second-division second baseman in a perfect world projection."
Returning to Durham this year, the now-23-year-old Beckham hit a fairly typical .276/.342/.387 with four homers and 17 steals, playing 15 games at second base in addition to shortstop. With Yunel Escobar at short and Ben Zobrist at second, he's played sparingly since reaching the majors, starting once and pinch-hitting three times. After singling off Scheppers in his debut, his biggest day thus far was on Monday, when he went 1-for-2 with a sacrifice fly in a 5-4 win over the he Orioles. He's 2-for-6 overall.
The Rays hold affordable options on both Escobar and Zobrist for 2014 and 2015, at $5 million a year for the former and $7 million and $7.5 million for the latter, so it's not likely they'll be carving out a starting job for Beckham immediately. Zobrist's ability to play the outfield leaves open the possibility of a part-time role for Beckham at second, perhaps in a multi-position platoon. The righty-swinging Beckham has hit .285/.358/.406 over the past three years against lefties, compared to .263/.322/.384 against righties. A trade shouldn't be ruled out as a possibility, either. At the very least, Beckham has already avoided joining the ignominious company of Steve Chilcott (chosen first in 1966 by the Mets), Brien Taylor (1991 by the Yankees) and Matt Bush (2004 by the Padres) among first picks who never even grazed the majors. He's got a ways to go before he garners enough playing time to surpass 1979 first pick Al Chambers (57 major league games after being tabbed by the Mariners), 1971/1975 first pick Danny Goodwin (252 games) or 1984 first pick Shawn Abner (392 games after being chosen by the Mets) among position playing first picks with short major league careers. Stardom may not be in the cards for Beckham, but his future remains worth keeping an eye on.