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40 in 40: Tim Beckham

Tim Beckham is a former No. 1 overall pick and is seen here wearing a backwards hat. It is unclear if anyone else has ever fit this criteria

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Media Day Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Mark McLemore. Charles Gipson. Shawn O’Malley. Willie Bloomquist.

The Seattle Mariners have a checkered history with utility guys. Some were brought in with low expectations and were lauded for their scrappiness. Others became utility guys only when it was clear they couldn’t hack it anywhere else.

For every McLemore and O’Malley who burrowed into the hearts of countless Northwest baseball fans, there’s Andrew Romine, who was objectively horrendous, or former sparkling prospects like Brad Miller and Ketel Marte who just never quite panned out, eventually torpedoing into other organizations.

The latest experiment at the middle infield/super utility role, 29-year-old Tim Beckham, lands somewhere in the middle of the low expectations-former prospect spectrum. Beckham was the first overall pick in the 2008 draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, joining the franchise as they started their upstream swim. Understandably, he was a beacon of sustained promise for the Rays, a team that selected first in the draft and made the World Series in the same season. Unfortunately for Tampa fans, the auspicious shortstop played in over twice as many games in the Rays’ minor league ranks as he did for the big club. Just after the nine-year anniversary of taking the Griffin High School stud atop the 2008 draft, Tampa Bay traded Beckham to the Orioles for Tobias Myers, who spent last season pitching for the Bowling Green Hot Rods.

Luckily for everyone rooting for Beckham—and those who love a good redemption story—our man got his groove back in Baltimore. He finished the 2017 campaign by slashing .306/.348/.523 with a 130 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR in just 50 games for the O’s. Lookout Landing has obtained behind-the-scenes footage of that 2017 transaction between the AL East rivals, in which Tampa slung a battered, beaten Beckham over their shoulders and brought him out to the town square.

GIF courtesy of Tenor

A primary shortstop, Beckham has fought off washedness by filling in at other infield spots. He’s covered 80 shifts at second base in his big-league career, and 47 more at third base. He even tried first base six times in 2016, because the Rays gonna Rays. Part of the reason for his musical chairs routine comes from the inherent value of versatility, and the reciprocal understanding between Beckham and his employers that moving around gives him a place on the roster. But Beckham was also moved gradually off of shortstop because he was never really all that good there.

In his first taste of the professional game in 2008 Rookie Ball, the hotshot of the league committed 13 errors in 37 games. 2009 brought a promotion to Class-A, and a cataclysmic increase in errors, as Beckham managed an unfathomable 43 errors in in 117 games. Despite having clear evidence not to, the Rays kept him at shortstop for the next two seasons, where he made 25 and 22 errors, respectively, before they finally tried him at second. Keep in mind that all of this happened before he even made his MLB debut, which eventually came on September 19, 2013, over five years after going first in the draft.

That initial callup lasted just five games as the Rays played out their regular season. Beckham looked like he was finally getting on the right track, too, logging a 113 wRC+ at Triple-A in 2013. Then, in what was surely preparation for one day being a Seattle Mariner, he injured himself badly in an off-season workout.

The torn ACL limited Beckham to just 18 minor league games in 2014. Once healthy (and just 25 at the time), the former golden boy finally played his first full season for the Rays. The results were underwhelming. So was his follow-up in 2016.

Tim Beckham MLB Stats

2015 223 .222 .274 .429 69 13 9 37 91 0.0 7
2016 215 .247 .300 .434 67 14 5 16 98 1.0 4

If not for that 50-game stretch with the 2017 Orioles, we’d be looking at Tim Beckham as an all-world talent who never found success at the highest level, and as another cautionary tale against drafting high school kids so early. While his 2018 signaled a disappointing regression (12 errors in 49 games at SS, seven more at 3B, .230 batting average), there are reasons not to completely give up on him yet.

Beckham’s greatest skill is hitting the ball forcefully. Since 2016, the Georgia boy has run a hard-hit percentage north of 30 percent in each season, topping out at 42.6% over 345 plate appearances with the 2017 Rays before they dumped him. As LL staff writer Ben Thoen noted on Twitter, Beckham and fellow off-season addition Domingo Santana were part of an exclusive club in the only year that both hitters were worth more than one win above replacement.

With an aversion to soft contact and a history of turning 20 percent of his flyballs into home runs, it stands to reason that Beckham could become a much more thunderous hitter by adding more elevation to his swing. The precarious nature of the Mariners’ middle infield means Beckham should have ample chances to get his hacks in. Depending on the front office’s timeline for J.P. Crawford, Dee Gordon’s productivity, and Kyle Seager’s rest schedule, Beckham could pop up like a Whack-a-Mole in multiple locations on the field.

MLB: Spring Training-San Diego Padres at Seattle Mariners Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There’s a nonzero chance he is Seattle’s primary shortstop in 2019, but Beckham will also surely sub in at second or third as needed. While he’s never done it in a game that counts, the beleaguered veteran has even dabbled in the outfield during past Spring Training games.

Upon zooming out and taking stock of the entire system, it becomes clear that Beckham is probably just a placeholder. He’s on a one-year deal to play the positions that will eventually go to Crawford and Shed Long if everything breaks right. He’s a utility man who may have failed upward into a starting shortstop job, even if that puts fans seated behind first base in danger.

All of that is fine, though. If he plays well, the Mariners have a heartwarming comeback narrative on their hands, and if he plays poorly, they can wash their hands of him and bring in the kids.