Tim Beckham is mashing the baseball right now. Not in terms of performance — his 118 wRC+ is very good, particularly for a shortstop, but it’s hardly eye-popping — but in terms of actually hitting the ball hard. Beckham’s hard contact rate on FanGraphs is 50.7 percent, fourth in baseball out of 184 qualified hitters. The three guys ahead of him are Nick Castellanos (6-foot-4, 210 pounds), Miguel Sanó (6-foot-4, 260 pounds), and Joey Gallo (6-foot-5, 235 pounds). Sanó and Gallo in particular have been attracting crowds to batting practice since they were teenagers, for the same reason people used to line up to watch the space shuttle take off.
Beckham, listed at 6-foot, 195 pounds, is fairly big for a normal person but positively waifish for a ballplayer. And here he is, slugging an even .500 as a shortstop. Beckham’s got other holes in his game — he has the 20th-worst walk rate and seventh-worst strikeout rate in baseball, making him one of the game’s least-disciplined hitters, which contribute to a .295 OBP — but overall, he’s turned into a decent player. Beckham is exactly a league-average hitter for his career, and he’s always graded out within a couple of runs of average as a defensive shortstop. Even though the Francisco Lindor generation makes it look easy, shortstop is still an incredibly difficult position to fill, and a league-average hitter who can handle the position defensively is valuable.
This is the 27-year-old Beckham’s fourth go-around in the big leagues: After a five-game cup of coffee in 2013, he collected about 200 plate appearances each in 2015 and 2016 as a utility infielder. Last season ended when the Rays — an organization that, it must be said, tried to arbitrage the behavior of Josh Sale, Josh Lueke, and Matt Bush into cheap big league talent — sent Beckham down to Triple-A for lack of hustle.
Now, Beckham is securely entrenched as Tampa Bay’s shortstop — he’s started 29 games in 2017 — and perhaps for the first time, he’s just Tim Beckham, and not the Guy the Rays Drafted Instead of Buster Posey.
Compared with the other major sports, very few of baseball’s Sliding Doors moments happen during the draft. The long developmental lead time for baseball means that even if a LeBron James or a Sidney Crosby shows up on a draft board, he’s harder to identify and develop. The mean career WAR total for the 52 no. 1 overall picks is 19.6. If you take out the past 10 years to eliminate players whose careers are just getting underway, that goes up to 22. The median career belonged to Kris Benson, who was a 12.9-win player over nine big league seasons. Not only is the no. 1 pick no guarantee of a nailed-on bulletproof superstar, those players pop up all over the draft: Bryce Harper went no. 1 overall, but Mike Trout went no. 25, and Albert Pujols lasted all the way to pick no. 402.
For that reason, the Bowie-over-Jordan-style draft recriminations aren’t very common, but 2008 is an exception. In his final mock draft for Baseball America that year, Jim Callis wrote the following about the Rays, who picked first:
Posey’s agent-backed demand for a $12 million signing bonus (this was back before MLB started penalizing teams for spending too much on amateur players) caused him to fall to the Giants at no. 5. (Posey eventually signed for $6.2 million, a mere $50,000 more than Beckham.) Posey went on to win a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, and three World Series rings. Meanwhile, Beckham took until this year, nearly a decade after the draft, to establish himself as a big league starter. Along the way he took a 50-game suspension for marijuana (which says more about MLB than it does Beckham) and missed nearly the entire 2014 season with a torn ACL. But it’s not like Beckham lit the world on fire when he was on the field: He didn’t crack an .800 OPS in any minor league stop longer than 20 games.
Despite playing fewer games per year than most of his draft classmates by virtue of being a catcher, Posey has 34.5 career WAR. The next-best player selected in the first three rounds, by WAR, is the 16th pick, Brett Lawrie, at 15.4.
It’s not just the looming historical specter of Posey that made the Beckham pick look so bad; it’s that he represented a watershed moment for the Rays. After the franchise’s history began with 10 straight 90-loss seasons, the Rays changed their name and won 97 games, the AL East, and the pennant in 2008. This was the first of six straight winning seasons that included four playoff appearances.
However, this run of on-field success made things harder come draft day. Since the Devil Rays sucked so badly, they picked in the top 10 every year from 1999 to 2008, including Beckham and three other no. 1 overall selections. And even considering how high they picked, the then–Devil Rays did a really good job of acquiring talented players.
- 1999: Josh Hamilton
- 2000: Rocco Baldelli
- 2001: Dewon Brazelton
- 2002: Melvin Upton Jr.
- 2003: Delmon Young
- 2004: Jeff Niemann
- 2005: Wade Townsend
- 2006: Evan Longoria
- 2007: David Price
- 2008: Beckham
Niemann and Townsend were all lost causes thanks to injury; both went to Rice, back when Rice was developing a reputation for turning young pitchers’ shoulders to ground chuck. Brazelton had Tommy John surgery while in high school and never found success in the bigs. Hamilton lost his Tampa Bay career to addiction, Baldelli to mitochondrial channelopathy, and Young to bad makeup. That leaves Longoria, Price, and Upton, who became key figures on that 2008 team. Toss in Carl Crawford, selected with the first pick in the second round in 1999, and some shrewd trades that netted shortstop Jason Bartlett and starting pitchers Matt Garza and Scott Kazmir, and you’ve got a World Series team.
Since 2008, though, Tampa Bay hasn’t drafted in the top 10 even once, and the 20 post-Beckham Tampa Bay first-rounders have combined for minus-0.5 WAR. Apart from Beckham, the only member of Tampa Bay’s 2008 draft class to even make the big leagues was Kyle Lobstein, whom the Rays lost to the Tigers, via the Mets, in the 2012 Rule 5 draft, and is still Kyle Lobstein.
It’s tougher to hit on first-rounders the further back you pick, but to have so many chances and come out completely empty-handed is astonishing, particularly for a small-market club that can’t chase big-ticket free agents.
The Rays’ first-round problems since 2008 leave Beckham in the unfortunate position of symbolizing a problem that isn’t really his fault. He’s had his own struggles, but Beckham didn’t pick Sale or sever 2011 first-rounder Taylor Guerrieri’s UCL. Yet, just as Beckham didn’t cause these problems, neither does his evolution into a decent big league infielder solve them. Meanwhile, Matt Duffy and Wilson Ramos are still hurt, Logan Morrison’s going to cool off sometime, and they still play in a division with the Yankees and Red Sox. What does Beckham’s performance mean for the Rays? Nothing, apart from “now they’ve got a shortstop.”
Of course, that’s outstanding news. After nearly a decade of being Not Buster Posey, or the face of an organization’s fall from contention, Beckham is finally established enough in the majors to just be himself, far enough removed from the expectations of the no. 1 overall pick to sink or swim based on performance alone.
All stats current through Saturday’s games.