How Tim Beckham Went from No. 1 Overall Pick to Forgotten Man
Tim Beckham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 MLB draft, has been promoted to the big leagues by the Tampa Bay Rays in time for the end of their critical four-game series against Texas, according to Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times.
#Rays callup Beckham— Marc Topkin (@TBTimes_Rays) September 18, 2013
There was a time, not that long ago, when this would have been a huge story for the Rays and baseball fans. Beckham was a rare high school talent with the potential to be one of the best players in baseball.
Unfortunately, as so often happens when trying to project an 18-year-old's future, things did not work out the way they were supposed to for Beckham.
Using revisionist history, it's easy to say that the Rays made a mistake drafting Beckham ahead of fellow 2008 draftees Pedro Alvarez (No. 2 to Pittsburgh), Eric Hosmer (No. 3 to Kansas City) and Buster Posey (No. 5 to San Francisco).
But at the time of the draft, there was no doubt among anyone writing about or evaluating the class that Beckham was the player to watch.
Here is a portion of what Baseball America wrote about Beckham prior to the draft in its annual ranking of the top 200 prospects:
At the plate he has the ability to be an above-average hitter with average power. He's a solid runner and his athleticism is a part of his everyday game. In the field, Beckham has smooth major league actions with an above-average arm. He has drawn comparisons to the Upton brothers, though he has more aptitude in the field and not quite the lightning in the bat. His makeup is a plus, as he displays an enjoyment of the game and energy on the field.
When you have a true shortstop who projects to hit for average and power, what's not to like? That is the kind of player teams dream about drafting.
It is also a reminder that the draft and talent evaluation are not exact sciences. These are human beings, a teenager in the case of Beckham, and not everything will translate exactly as it is "supposed" to.
There were some warning signs early in Beckham's minor-league career, as he scuffled to a .246/.309/.350 line in 48 games between the Appalachian League and New York-Penn League to close out 2008.
Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus noted in his 2009 rankings of the top 11 Rays prospects that some scouts felt Beckham might have been trying to do too much as the No. 1 pick:
He struggled in his pro debut last year, and some observers felt that he was often pressing while trying to live up to his expectations as a top pick. Beckham will eventually have to quiet his swing, and he needs playing time and repetitions in order to hone his skills.
No one was panicking after that 2008 performance because it was just a 48-game sample and Beckham was just 18 years old.
But then came the 2009 season, which looked like a lot more of the same. In 125 games with Low-A Bowling Green, Beckham hit just .275/.328/.389 with 116 strikeouts, 34 walks and 42 extra-base hits in 491 at-bats.
It was after Beckham's first full season that you could start to feel the tide shift on what his ultimate future would be. Gone were the days of a superstar shortstop for the next decade.
Bill Ballew of Baseball America (subscription required to see full scouting report) ranked the Rays' top 10 prospects heading into the 2010 season with Beckham at No. 6, citing raw power, smooth actions in the field and a strong throwing arm as his biggest positives.
But the report also said that the maturation of Beckham's body, especially in his lower half, lessened the chances he would be able to stay at shortstop, and he made a number of errors due to "lackadaisical footwork."
(I do want to note that Tampa Bay's system featured some exceptional, major-league-ready talent in 2010, with names like Jeremy Hellickson, Desmond Jennings, Matt Moore, Wade Davis and Alex Colome also in the top 10. So it's not like Beckham ranked sixth in a mediocre group.)
Based on pre-draft expectations, who is the most disappointing No. 1 pick of the last 10 years?
Fast-forward to 2010, and Beckham once again greatly failed to meet expectations with a .256/.346/.359 line in 123 games as a 20-year-old in Low-A, and the bottom dropped out on his stock.
Neither Keith Law of ESPN (Insider subscription required) nor Baseball America had Beckham ranked in the top 10 among Rays prospects heading into the 2011 season. Kevin Goldstein, who dives a little deeper into systems (at least online, since BA releases its annual book with the top 30 prospects for each team), had the struggling shortstop ranked 18th and said 2011 could be a "make-or-break season."
The good news is Beckham did answer the call, at least to a certain extent. He didn't light the Double-A world on fire and regain all of his prospect stock, but he did play well enough to earn a spot on the American roster for the Futures Game and had a career-best slash line of .271/.328/.408 with 12 home runs (matching his total from 2008-10 combined).
As much as the 2011 season helped revive Beckham's career, as he made the move up to Triple-A late in the year and generated some buzz as a potential MLB second baseman, the next season would be one of his most difficult.
On top of putting up a pedestrian .256/.325/.361 line in 72 games with Triple-A Durham, Beckham was suspended 50 games for a second violation of what MiLB.com called a "drug of abuse."
Former No. 1 overall pick Tim Beckham of Tampa suspended 50 games for drug of abuse -- second violation. More to come.— MiLB.com (@MiLB) May 1, 2012
That moment when the suspension was handed down basically ended what little chance Beckham had to earn a spot with Tampa Bay as an everyday player. He was put on the team's 40-man roster after the 2012 season concluded to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, where someone would almost certainly have taken a chance on him given the low cost of making a pick and seeing if he could win a big-league job out of spring training.
Beckham returned to Durham for the 2013 season and put up numbers similar to what he did the previous four years (.276/.342/.387 in 122 games).
The biggest problem he had was never figuring out how to translate those raw hitting skills shown in high school, especially power, into games against professional pitchers.
His body did fill out to the point where he wasn't going to be able to handle shortstop in the big leagues, but the bat was still good enough to project at second or third base. Since the offensive bar is much higher at those spots, Beckham needed that power to develop.
It also hurt that Beckham's approach at the plate basically stalled after the 2010 season, when he drew 62 walks and posted a .346 OBP. When you're as susceptible to swinging and missing as Beckham, you have to recognize off-speed pitches and work counts to find ways to help you get on base.
That never happened, which is why the Rays have had Beckham spend two full years in Triple-A before giving him this late-season opportunity.
All of that brings us to this moment, on Sept. 18, when Beckham prepares for the biggest moment of his life.
It's really unfortunate that it's happening this way because Beckham, despite what the numbers may say, has worked really hard just to get to this point. Every scouting report that I mentioned in this article talks about how incredible his work ethic is, so you can't blame his lackluster performance on complacency.
Beckham is just an unfortunate reminder of how even the most-hyped draft prospects can fizzle. So when you flip on the Rays game Wednesday night—I would say if you are going, but based on the attendance at the Trop, that seems like a waste of time—don't be shocked to see the now-23-year-old play at some point.
It's just not going to be with the same fanfare that anyone would have predicted when Beckham was the best prospect in a draft that featured a future MVP, power-hitting third baseman tied for the NL lead in home runs and one of the best young first baseman in the sport.
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