Tim Beckham revives prospect status

PHOENIX -- Tim Beckham has spent most of the past two years listening to people say the Tampa Bay Rays whiffed by taking him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft. So it's only fitting that his trip to the All-Star Futures Game this weekend came with a big fat travel glitch.

Beckham sat stewing on an airport runway in Jacksonville, Fla., for 45 minutes Saturday because of inclement weather at his connecting stop in Atlanta. The delay wasn't so bad, but the 45-minute gap came at precisely the time Beckham's baseball icon, Derek Jeter, was driving a David Price pitch into the left-field seats at Yankee Stadium for his 3,000th career hit.

Beckham received instant text updates from his brother and some friends in the Rays' organization, but he still felt shortchanged to learn after the fact that Jeter had entered the history books.

"Derek Jeter was my guy growing up,'' Beckham said. "He was my favorite player and the guy I imitated and wanted to be like. I was pretty heated when I missed that 3,000th hit.''

The good news: Beckham made it to Chase Field in plenty of time for Sunday's Future Game, and he experienced a major thrill when he walked into the U.S. Team clubhouse and saw his name above a locker stall and that cool Sedona red jersey with camouflage numbers hanging from a hook.

Beckham entered the game in the fifth inning as a replacement for starting shortstop Manny Machado and struck out in his first at-bat. But he doubled home the tying run in the bottom of the eighth, and came around to score the game-winner in the U.S. team's 6-4 victory.

There's nothing like dressing three stalls down from Bryce Harper before the game and seeing camera lights in your face afterward to let you know you're back on the map.

Truth be told, Beckham had done little in his first three professional seasons to be mingling with the game's elite prospects. In Rookie ball, he hit .243 with a .297 on base percentage. With Bowling Green in the South Atlantic League in 2009, he made 43 errors and struck out 119 times. And his 2010 stint with the Charlotte Stone Crabs in the Florida State League was only marginally better.

The more Beckham floundered, the more fun revisionist historians had second-guessing the 2008 draft. In picking Beckham, the Rays passed on Eric Hosmer, who went to Kansas City in the third spot, and Buster Posey, who landed in San Francisco with the No. 5 pick. Among the other players selected in the first round: Justin Smoak, Jemile Weeks, Brett Wallace, Ike Davis, Lonnie Chisenhall and Casey Kelly.

No one was ready to declare Beckham a Matt Bush-caliber bust, but he did appear to be hurtling toward life as a trivia question: He's the last player to be chosen first overall since the Washington Nationals completed a Scott Boras doubleheader with Stephen Strasburg and Harper. Yet the more expectations waned and Beckham's luster began to fade, the more determined he was to dispel the doubts.

"You can't let it get to you too much,'' Beckham said. "That's when everything goes downhill. You have to keep playing the game you love and keep smiling and have fun with it. I never got down on myself. That's something a man should never do -- lose confidence in himself or his team.''

Beckham has helped revive his prospect status with a solid season for Tampa Bay's Double-A affiliate in Montgomery, Ala. His .277 batting average and .730 OPS aren't exactly eye-popping, but the numbers are more impressive when you consider that, at age 21, he's one of the youngest players in the Southern League.

Among the scouts assembled at Chase Field on Sunday, the big question was whether Beckham can continue to play shortstop in the big leagues.

"He's a decent athlete, but his lower half is getting bigger, and I'm not sure if he has the instincts to play short,'' said an NL talent evaluator. "But the bottom line is, he's a 21-year-old kid playing in a tough hitters' league, and he's holding his own. I don't think he's going to be a superstar. But he's going to play in the big leagues, and he has a chance to be an everyday guy.''

The Rays also have one of the game's top prospects in their system in the person of Hak-Ju Lee, who was acquired from the Cubs in the Matt Garza trade. With Evan Longoria entrenched at third base for the next few years and Lee working his way through the minors, Beckham might ultimately be forced to move to left field or second base.

Given all the nice things that Beckham's teammates and Rays executives say about him, he looks like a kid who's willing to do whatever it takes. He wins points for running out every ground ball and taking a diligent, professional approach in his daily preparation.

"He's going to turn out to be a great Major League Baseball player because the guy works his tail off,'' said pitcher Matt Moore, Beckham's teammate in Montgomery. "He's the first guy there almost every single day, and he's not just sitting around. He's there getting work done. He's dedicated and he's on a mission right now.

"I played with him in Princeton in 2008, and it's unbelievable how much progress he's made. He was the No. 1 overall pick and he got a lot of money, and it might have been a situation where he put a little extra pressure on himself. But he's got that swagger about him now. It's like he's saying, 'I feel comfortable here.'''

Beckham certainly didn't lack for swagger after the draft three years ago. When the Rays selected him out of Griffin (Ga.) High School, Beckham said he wanted to make All-Star teams upon his arrival in the majors and "hopefully make it to the Hall of Fame.'' The Rays, convinced that a big future was in store, signed him to a $6.15 million bonus.

Was Beckham just a naive kid caught up in the moment? In hindsight, is that "Hall of Fame'' comment something he regrets?

"I was young at the time, but it's something I want to do,'' Beckham said. "It's something we all want to do. It's why we work hard at our craft. Everybody wants to be that great player. I keep striving to be that player.''

In this, his fourth professional season, Beckham might not be considered a fast tracker anymore. But he's moving in the right direction. That's all that matters.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via email.

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