Tim Beckham: Mere Man or Mammoth Myth?

Beckham in 2011 Futures Game

Tim Beckham was the first pick in the 2008 MLB Draft. Some are already calling him a bust, and some are saying he just needs more time to blossom into the superstar the Rays expected when they drafted him. Which side are you on?

I like to play darts (and not plastic tip darts because that's for drunk college kids at dive bars.) I like playing so much because darts is a game of precision. If you're off by a fraction of an inch when shooting for a triple 20, it isn't good enough. A few rounds of ineptitude and all of a sudden you're trailing by 150 points. Darts is one of those games where the only way to get better is truly practicing for hours and hours, worrying about the slightest hitch in your delivery or a last second twitch of a finger.

I suppose that's why I fell in love with baseball too. It's also ultimately a game of precision, but baseball typifies statistical precision. When planning for upcoming seasons, most general managers pore over thousands of pages of statistics to find the best available players to create wins for their team. Some of these statistics are unfamiliar to the casual fan, such as FIP. FIP is short for Fielding Independent Pitching. This statistic measures how well a pitcher would pitch regardless of the defense playing behind him and is a much better indicator of a pitcher's talent than ERA or wins. This statistic is absolutely irrelevant to the rest of the article, but I just happen to be a big fan of it.

That being said, all of these projectable statistics mean nothing until the games are played on the field. This is why planning for the MLB Draft is even more of a crapshoot than planning a team's offseason from year to year because much of the statistical data acquired by the GM on amateur players is so flawed. Some amateur players put up great numbers because they're playing against far inferior competition. Some pitchers benefit from pitching in colder climates because balls don't fly as far. And most importantly, some of the most talented players won't be easily recognizable until they are fully physically developed. This last caveat frustrates even the most experienced scouts to no end. All in all, these stats are interpretable in a myriad of different ways and it's up to the general managers to make the best calls.

This brings us to the case of the Rays top draft pick in 2008, shortstop Tim Beckham. Beckham was drafted out of high school at the tender age of 18. He projected to be five tool player with enough speed to steal 40 bases and enough power to hit 25 home runs. The scouting reports on him were stellar enough to merit the Rays taking him with the number one pick in the 2008 draft. By taking a high school player in Beckham, the Rays passed on several now active major leaguers. Buster Posey was available. Pedro Alvarez was available. Brian Matusz was available. Ike Davis was available. But the Rays were so sure Beckham was the real deal that they drafted him and signed him to a then-record deal of just over $6 million.

Since then, all of the scouts' initial projections for Beckham have proved inaccurate. Beckham has put up largely unimpressive minor league stats. His career OPS in the minors is .713 and he has struck out in 24% of his minor league at bats. His strikeout to walk ratio is a paltry 2.6 K/BB. His fielding percentage is a lackluster .941, even though he sports what Bill Ballew of BaseballAmerica.com calls the, "best infield arm in the Rays system." Beckham has statistically floundered at every level of the minors, despite a great work ethic.

As a result of his failure to meet expectations to this point, Beckham's stock has fallen off the map faster than Chia Pets and Pokemon cards. He was, not surprisingly, intitally projected to be one of the top talents in the Rays system. Baseball America had him second to David Price in their 2008 prospect analysis of the Rays system. Before the 2011 season, he had fallen off Baseball America's top ten prospect list for the Rays, and John Sickles of minorleagueball.com had him at #23. Although he showed some improvement in 2011, it remains to be seen where he'll rank in 2012 prospect lists.

Beckham has a busy body at the plate, but has quick hands that enable him to get the bat through the zone faster than the average minor leaguer. His stance is a tad unorthodox (similar to Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks) and as a result he has a tough time catching up to inside heat and is often left looking foolish against breaking balls. As previously noted, he has a great arm in the field, but many scouts assume that he will outgrow shortstop and have to be moved to a corner outfield spot. If this is the case, he had better start hitting a lot more than he is now if he wants a shot at being a major league regular.

It isn't all bad news though. In 46 at bats in the 2011 Arizona Fall League, Beckham has put on a clinic and has a .998 OPS with a pair of home runs and 11 runs driven in. It's a small sample size certainly, but at least it's progress. Furthermore, he cut down his errors from 43 in 2009 to 22 in 2011. He was also chosen for the 2011 Futures Game, and showed enough progress in AA Montgomery to be promoted to AAA Durham late last season. Strides like these speak volumes to his work ethic and his drive to succeed.

Knowing this, it's not completely outlandish to think Beckham will bounce back and return to top prospect status. He is still only 21 years old. Most amateur players don't see their first minor league pitch until they are 22 or 23, so Beckham has all that seasoning under his belt. He has been through the grind of a full minor league season. He's been on the long bus rides and eaten the crappy food which is so typical of the minor league experience. Now that he has had ample time to grow up and adjust to life as a minor leaguer, it's conceivable to imagine him having a marginally better year this year.

The Rays really do need Beckham to pan out as they invested a lot of money and passed on some extremely talented individuals to take him. The best case scenario would have him starting at shortstop for the Rays going into 2013, but a more likely scenario would have him being a September call-up in 2013 or possibly not getting any big league action until 2014. Whatever the case may be, he definitely needs to continue to improve on last year's numbers if he wants a shot at the show.


To see what Scout.com's National Baseball Expert Frankie Piliere has to say about Beckham see: ScoutTV: Reviewing the Rays' Farm System

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