“I’d like to consider myself a perpetual competitor,” Beckham said. “I’m blessed with that.”
The Orioles finished 75-87 last season for their first losing record since 2011. But they stood just a game out of a wild-card spot as late as Sept. 5, with Beckham fueling an unlikely surge. Acquired from the Rays in a July 31 trade for the Class A pitcher Tobias Myers, Beckham hit safely in his first 12 games for Baltimore, batting .531. His final August average was .394, with 15 multi-hit games.
“The first time a guy is traded, you’ve got a window of opportunity you can walk through,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said. “But I never dreamed he would have the month he had. I mean, he was unbelievable. There wasn’t a better player in the American League for a month.”
Dan Duquette, the Orioles’ executive vice president for baseball operations, knows all about players thriving in new environments. In 2013, he traded a player who was 27, still with his first team, and who had never quite translated his talent to consistent success. That player was Jake Arrieta, who went on to stardom for the Chicago Cubs.
Beckham was the Arrieta of the Rays: 27 years old last summer, in his fourth major league season with his only team, undeniably talented but going nowhere. The Orioles had seen plenty of Beckham, in spring training and the A.L. East, and they liked his tools.
“He can run, he can throw, he’s an excellent athlete,” Duquette said. “It looked to me like he was learning how to hit and use his power. And he was hungry — he wanted to play every day, and he didn’t get the opportunity.”
In Baltimore, Beckham said with a clear measure of pride, he did not miss a game until he needed a root canal in late September. He struggled that month but still finished with a .306 average for the Orioles and a .782 on-base plus slugging percentage for the entire season — matching Machado and ranking seventh among 20 everyday major league shortstops.
For Beckham, it was vindication for all the time he believed he should have been starting for the Rays. He missed 50 games in 2012 after a second positive test for marijuana, and missed most of 2014 with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But he never understood why the Rays acquired so many veteran shortstops — Yunel Escobar, Asdrubal Cabrera, Adeiny Hechavarria, Brad Miller, Matt Duffy — instead of seeing what he could do.
“You can’t get locked in unless you’re playing every day, unless you’re given an opportunity to fail and they run you back out there,” Beckham said. “If I go 0 for 4 in Tampa, I might not play for four days, and then the next at-bat I get might be against Zach Britton.”
As a right-handed hitter, Beckham would often play against All-Star left-handers like Britton, Chris Sale and David Price, who combined to hold him to two hits in 28 at-bats with the Rays. His pedigree made his lack of playing time stand out.
“I’m 1-1, so how does that happen?” Beckham said, referring to first pick, first round. “Now everyone’s looking at me — ‘he’s not doing this, he’s not playing well.’ No, I’m not playing at all.”
Beckham did play regularly for the Rays last season, mostly because of injuries to Miller and Duffy. Facing a logjam in late July, Tampa Bay traded him and promptly fell out of the playoff race. The Rays did not have a winning record after Aug. 11, and the tenure of their former top pick had ended with a thud.
“I wouldn’t describe it as not working out. I really wouldn’t,” Rays General Manager Erik Neander said, explaining that, by the end, Beckham had finally blossomed. “Certainly, what he accomplished in Baltimore further cemented that, and we’re happy for him in that regard.
“For us, hindsight helps a lot. But at the time with our infield situation, the way the at-bats were going to be allocated, we felt we were going to move someone, and that’s the way we went.”
Neander said the Rays liked Myers and had depth in right-handed infielders like Beckham. They have since acquired even more, in deals that sent Longoria to San Francisco and starter Jake Odorizzi to the Minnesota Twins, right fielder Steven Souza Jr. to Arizona and left fielder Corey Dickerson to Pittsburgh. A rebuild is on for the Rays, and Beckham is happy in a city where nobody cares that he is not Buster Posey.
“Good for him for all the accolades he’s gotten and deserves — he’s a heck of a catcher, a heck of a baseball player,” Beckham said. “With that being said, me getting a chance to play every day and getting on a winning ball club and a winning organization with the history of the Baltimore Orioles, I look to do the same thing.”
To Beckham, there is simply no doubt. He will work as hard as he can to learn third base, but shortstop could be his again, if Machado is traded or leaves as a free agent next winter. Beckham knows he can still be a star, wherever the Orioles put him. It says so right on his back.
“I will be,” he said. “I will be. As long as I’m playing every day, I’m going to be a star player.”