In 2008, the Rays drafted high school shortstop prospect Tim Beckham No. 1 overall in the Rule 4 Draft. Expected to be a longer-term developmental project with huge upside, Beckham has been a bit of a disappointment for the Rays thus far. Though he has climbed steadily through the minor-league ranks, finally reaching Triple-A during the 2011 season, Beckham hasn't become the All-Star caliber talent many expected.
When he was drafted, scouts drooled over his five-tool background and potential. But as he's moved up the minor league ranks, he hasn't developed much power, his defensive ability has been a running issue, and his bat just hasn't been substantially above league-average at nearly any level of the minors. He's fallen off all the top-100 prospect lists, and is primed to return to Triple-A Durham for his age-23 season. Not only that, but with Hak-Ju Lee likely ensconced as the Durham (and Tampa Bay) shortstop of the future, Beckham is likely to be a second baseman or super-sub, even at the Triple-A level.
But what if I told you that, if you squint a little, you could look at Tim Beckham and see a decent major-leaguer. If Beckham played for any other franchise, or didn't have the stigma of a No. 1 overall pick, I'm sure plenty of major-league teams would be excited to have him. Despite not hitting terribly well at any minor league level, he also hasn't hit poorly at any level. Beckham's wRC+ has hovered around the 100 level in almost every stop, meaning that his bat has been league-average almost everywhere in the minors. For a middle infielder, that's not too bad. And if Beckham really does show an ability to adapt to multiple positions, including some shortstop and second base, he could have quite a bit of value as a utility player.
The problem is, Beckham is on the absolute wrong team for his skillset. Just take a moment and look at this list of MLB / AAA middle infielders that the Rays have ready to go:
- Ben Zobrist (SHB)
- Yunel Escobar (RHB)
- Ryan Roberts (RHB)
- Sean Rodriguez (RHB)
- Reid Brignac (LHB)
- Elliot Johnson (SHB)
- Hak-Ju Lee (LHB)
- Tim Beckham (RHB)
It's not like all of these players are created equal. Some of them (like Zobrist and Escobar) are assured of starting postions. Others (like Lee) are assured to spend the season at Triple-A. Let's take a quick look as to where these players might end up to start the 2013 season.
Personally, I believe the team gets the most value out of playing Ben Zobrist at second base on a regular basis, given how good his bat and glove are compared to the average 2B. Moving Zo to right field or first base as the need requires is fine, but having him consistently available in the middle infield is critical to maximizing this team's offensive output.
Yunel Escobar's value is tied to his ability to play shortstop, and should be the starter at that position for as long as he's with the team, and effective. He's a two-to-four win player at that position, again providing serious surplus value. So that gives the team two regular starters at the major league level.
Next, there's Ryan Roberts and Sean Rodriguez. These two players are, in many ways, interchangeable. Both of them play multiple infield positions, with Rodriguez having more flexibility, including the ability to fill in at shortstop. Both hit right-handed, both play solid enough defense, and both are likely to spend the full season on the 25-man roster. One or the other (likely Roberts) is the presumptive starter at DH for now, and the other will be a right-handed bat off the bench and backup infielder.
Then, there's the combo of Elliot Johnson and Reid Brignac. While Johnson is a switch-hitter, he has more success as a left-handed hitter, and Brignac is a lefty as well. Both of these players are weak-hitting "shortstops+", meaning that they can fill in at a few positions, but really give the team most value via defense at the six. Unfortunately, neither player hit well in 2012, with Brignac being egregiously bad. Nevertheless, I'd expect one of the two to break camp with the team as a platoon option and defensive replacement, with the other serving time at Durham.
Finally, Hak-Ju Lee is a left-handed hitting shortstop, but one with great defense, blazing speed and better offensive upside than Johnson or Brignac. Lee is one of the Rays' top prospects, but will probably earn a full season at Triple-A before breaching the major league roster in 2014. But if Yunel Escobar turns out to be a big hit, and the team is unable to trade him, Lee might be traded himself, or held back. Basically, either he or Escobar will be the everyday shortstop for the Rays for the forseeable future, barring some mishap.
And that leaves our Mr. Beckham out in the cold. The major league team doesn't need a starting second baseman, not with Ben Zobrist. The team certainly doesn't need a right-handed hitting utility infielder with Rodriguez and Roberts on the major-league roster. And Beckham could move to the outfield, but it's unlikely that his bat will play well enough to displace someone like Brandon Guyer or even Sam Fuld.
The best thing that the Rays can hope for is for Beckham to get off to a very hot start in Triple-A Durham, where he'll probably be the starting second baseman. If Tim's bat gets hot, the Rays will probably survey the trade market, and I could see the team moving Beckham while his value is high, or shifting Sean Rodriguez or Ryan Roberts to another team instead.
But the Rays would have a very nice problem if Beckham has a strong start to 2013, as middle infielders, especially ones who can play shortstop, are incredibly valuable. Didi Gregorius pried Trevor Bauer loose from the Diamondbacks. Stephen Drew signed for nearly $10 million dollars coming off a pretty poor season. A good Triple-A season from Tim Beckham, one in which he posts above-league-average production could transform a potential logjam in the middle infield into a very real opportunity to upgrade this team. And while the Rays would probably like that No. 1 overall pick back (hello, Buster Posey), perhaps the team could make that selection worth something.