Given the way the 2009 and 2010 top draft selections–Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper–have been hyped from Day 1 of their pro careers, it seems somewhat odd that we hear little of 2008 #1 pick Tim Beckham these days.
There’s good reason for that–Strasburg and Harper were considered once-in-a-generation prospects, while Beckham was part of a deep draft that lacked a consensus top player. Furthermore, while Harper’s reached Double-A as a teenager in his pro debut, and Strasburg sped to the majors, Beckham has moved at a much slower pace, generally playing a full season at each level. Without any truly dominating performances, he often gets lost in the shuffle of the Rays’ bevy of top prospects.
Whether he’s gotten attention or not, though, Beckham is nearing the big leagues, as he was recently promoted to Triple-A Durham.
It may sound like a disappointment for a #1 overall selection to take three full years just to make it to Triple-A, but it certainly makes more sense when you put Beckham’s career in context. For one, he was drafted as an 18-year-old out of high school, so he’s still just 21 after all this time–very young for the International League.
Secondly, Beckham’s career got off to an inauspicious start. He put up a .642 OPS in Rookie ball in 2008, and followed that up with a “meh” .275/.328/.389 line in Low-A two years ago. That batting line was acceptable for a 19-year-old shortstop, but when coupled with his poor baserunning (13-for-23 in steals) and fielding (43 errors), none of Beckham’s supposed “five tools” seemed to be showing up.
He had a similar year in 2010 in High-A, hitting an okay-but-far-from-great .256/.346/.359, going just 22-for-36 in steals, and committing 25 errors. The two positives to take from the season were an improved K/BB ratio (119/62, up from 116/34) and the lowered error total, but there were clearly still glaring flaws in Beckham’s game.
This season, Beckham put up a career high .734 OPS in his first crack in Double-A. While his plate discipline hasn’t stayed at 2010 levels (91/39 K/BB), he’s already hit a career high seven homers and also stroked 25 doubles. Beckham hit .275/.339/.395 at the level overall, which is certainly nice from a 21-year-old shortstop in Double-A, if underwhelming for a former #1 pick. Better still, he finally stopped running into outs, going 15-for-19 in steals.
The overall package could certainly turn Beckham into a serviceable MLB shortstop–he definitely could profile as at least a .260/.310/.370 hitter, which is enough to start at short for most teams these days. The two big questions with him are: 1) if he can stay at short defensively and 2) if he’ll ever truly “break through” to become more than just an adequate player.
Both are still open for debate. Beckham made 20 errors in Double-A this year, and as his steals totals indicate, he’s not the swiftest shortstop out there. If anything, his defensive profile is similar to that of Hanley Ramirez. And while Ramirez has been great in the majors, he certainly isn’t there for his shortstop defense. Beckham may ultimately face a move to third base, a position that would see him ideally hit for more power than he does.
And that points to the second question–we’re talking about a player who had enough raw skill to be picked first overall, so we probably shouldn’t rule out significant future development when he’s still just 21 years old. After all, plenty of top draftees have had rough introductions to pro ball (Justin Upton), or even languished for several years (Devin Mesoraco) before turning it on later.
In any case, Beckham will probably need to hit more, either to make up for what he gives away on defense at shortstop or to profile well for another position.
The latter scenario is the more likely in Tampa Bay’s organization because of the presence of the man who will succeed Beckham as Double-A Montgomery’s shortstop–Hak-Ju Lee.
And hey, while we’re on the subject of breakthroughs to match raw talent, Lee’s 2011 has to be counted as a big one. In 2010, he posted a Beckham-esque .705 OPS in Low-A, and while he got good defensive reviews and stole 32 bases, his batting line cast some doubt on whether he could be an impact player or just a run-of-the-mill defense-oriented shortstop.
Even at the harsh High-A Charlotte environment, Lee pounded the ball, hitting .317/.389/.442 as a 20-year-old this season. Unlike Beckham, Lee is a true shortstop who should excel at the position defensively, and he’s a true burner on the basepaths–while he’s just 28-for-42 in steals this season, Lee has legged out 11 triples, which significantly boosts his slugging percentage.
The lefty batter has room to grow into his 6’2″ frame and add some strength, and he could wind up with double-digit homer power to go with lots of balls in the gaps. He’s already got an advanced sense of the strike zone, with a 72/42 K/BB ratio.
Beckham and Lee are two high-upside infielders who are both well ahead of most players their age. Now in the upper minors, they both are approaching Tampa, although the Rays are typically very cautious with prospects and we may not see either in a significant role until 2013. Nonetheless, with Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez failing to live up to their promise, Beckham and Lee could wind up needing to pick up the slack in the near future. They may well be up to the task.