Nearly nine full years ago, on June 5, 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays made Timothy Lamar Beckham the first overall player selected in that year’s June Amateur Draft. He was drafted before Pedro Alvarez, Eric Hosmer, Jason Castro, and most notably Buster Posey (who was deemed too expensive to sign). All are fellow first-rounders who now feel like veterans of baseball. Sprinkled in the later rounds were plenty of names you’ll recognize as well: Tyson Ross, Charlie Blackmon, Craig Kimbrel, Brandon Crawford, Dee Gordon, Jason Kipnis, established major leaguers.
For Beckham, the path has been a bit more winding.
Part of this was due to Beckham being drafted fresh outta high school, where trajectory was rather typical at first. He spent 2009 at Lo-A, 2010 at Hi-A, and he split time in 2011 between Double-A and Triple-A. He didn’t post jaw-dropping numbers at any of these stops, but he was progressing through the Rays system, and was still just 21 years old at the end of the 2011 season.
In 2012, Beckham suffered his first setback, receiving a 50-game ban for a second positive test for marijuana. The setback meant Beckham would start 2013 in Triple-A once again, where Beckham had one of his better overall years in the minors, slashing .276/.342/.387 with 17 steals.
That slugging percentage for 2013 (.387) was the reason Beckham had seen his prospect rating drop in three of his first five professional seasons, but the Rays saw enough from Beckham to give him the late September call-up, and Beckham made the most of it, getting a hit in his first MLB at bat and collecting three hits in seven at bats that fall.
While nothing was written in stone, with the natural progression of Beckham, plus the fact that he hadn’t looked overwhelmed in his brief debut, Beckham was set to compete for a roster spot to start 2014.
That’s when Beckham suffered the second setback of his career to date when he tore his ACL after the 2013 season. It was a freak accident at the worst possible time. As he told Bill Chastain of MLB.com at the time:
"Just training; it was supposed to be my day off. While doing a drill at the end of the workout, my tennis shoe hit the ground and I tried to cross over into a sprint. I was sprinting out of the drill and when my foot hit the ground, my foot slipped and my knee gave."
The injury kept Beckham on the sidelines for most of the 2014 season, as he got in only 24 minor league rehab games for the year. After a full year of rehab, however, Beckham was able to make it up to the big leagues much earlier in 2015, making his season-debut with the Rays on April 7 and hitting his first MLB home run on April 11.
Despite a strong April (slashing .302/.354/.581 as of April 26), Beckham went ice cold in May (.213/.267/.426 by May 30) resulting in a demotion to the minor leagues.
Beckham was called back up in the middle of July, but he never fully grasped the starting shortstop gig and ended the season with a rather poor .222/.274/.429 slash line. He was able to play 82 games, but due to to his numerous setbacks, Beckham no longer had his young age working in his favor. Beckham was now 25 — the age by which prospects of his caliber are supposed to be matured.
Beckham showed he still needed some maturity in 2016, as he scuttled again at the dish (career-high 31.2% strikeout rate) and once again saw a stint in the minors after he failed to hustle from second base to home during a Rays game in August. The Rays didn’t even call him back in September’s expanded rosters. The following offseason had to be a time to mature.
That brings us to 2017
On the surface, not much has changed. Beckham is hitting .227 and his strikeout rate is higher than ever before (37.0%) in the small sample size of three weeks in; however, there is definitely a different vibe with Beckham.
Listening to his interview on Rays’ Radio with Neil Solondz, a more mature and accepting Beckham is evident. When asked what he wanted people to remember about him, Beckham responded,
“He’s the hardest worker ever I ever came across. He never took anything for granted.”
That’s some pretty severe Athlete-Talk, but it’s notable that Beckham is also working on creating a non-profit and doing lots of work within the Rays’ community.
Now a cynic can say this is the same story Rays fans have heard 100 times before. The dateline on this article may say April 19, 2017, but it might as well say March 30, 2016 or May 2, 2015.
The Rays’ community is a strictly hard-factor community, relying on statistical analysis as their go-to method of player evaluation — and that is great. But it is worth noting that Beckham referenced Rickie Weeks in his same interview with Solondz and that this is his final season before arbitration - a pair of quite important soft factors for 2017. Word has it veteran Rickie Weeks Jr. has been a guiding presence as well. Those types of behind-the-stats impacts - soft factors, if you will - can go a long way in bridging the gap between what we understand about baseball (a lot) and what we still don’t understand about the sport (also, a lot).
The Rays went out of their way to acquire an everyday shortstop in Matt Duffy last season in the Matt Moore trade, but he’s been out with injury, giving Tim Beckham what looks like his final chance with the organization.
So, is Beckham here to stay?
Beckham’s defense has been solid and the hitting is passable, but the next few weeks may decide his career.
In just 64 games in 2016, Beckham was worth 1.3 bWAR, thanks to a plus glove and a league-average bat (OPS+ of 100). It was the other stuff, the lack of hustle etc., that derailed a possible three-win season for Beckham.
Beckham is starting to carve out a bit of a niche against lefties this season, as he is hitting .286 with a much better contact rates against southpaws in 2017. If he can be in the lineup each time the Rays face a lefty and fill in with solid defense and an OK bat every now and then against righties, the Rays will have a place on the MLB roster for him, even if he’s not a starter once Matt Duffy returns.
Beckham will never reach the heights of a Buster Posey - he may not even reach the heights of a Pedro Alvarez - but writing him off entirely is still premature.
This may well be Beckham’s last shot, let’s see if he takes it.