The Tampa Bay Rays made Beckham the top pick the MLB amateur draft a decade ago. His bat never made the impact it was supposed to in pro ball, though, and injuries and a suspension further hampered his development. After four uninspiring seasons in Tampa, he was finally sent away, traded to the Baltimore Orioles in 2017. Beckham then promptly hit .306/.348/.523 in 50 games, mashing 10 home runs.
“There’s definitely a chance he continues to produce at an above-average level,” wrote FanGraphs after Beckham’s post-trade theatrics. “He could also find himself slapped to Norfolk (Baltimore’s Triple-A club) by the regression monster.”
That’s pretty much what would have happened if the Orioles weren’t destined to suffer through one of the ugliest seasons in recent memory. Beckham’s .230/.287/.374 line in 2018 is certainly forgettable. Though he was far from the biggest problem in their organization, the O’s decided to jettison him from their team once all was said and done.
Now that Beckham is a free agent, he should feature prominently on the Detroit Tigers’ radar.
Why should Detroit be looking at a player worth -0.5 WAR in 2018?
The Tigers need a shortstop, a topic that has been beaten into the ground over the last few weeks. The rumored list of candidates is as bland as they come, and includes such mainstays of mediocre baseball as Freddy Galvis and Jordy Mercer. Beckham isn’t a thriller, but he is certainly more interesting than the other candidates for the job.
Of course, there’s also a reason the worst team in baseball didn’t want Beckham on their roster. For one, he cost more than he was worth. The Orioles weren’t willing to roll a $4.3 million pair of dice on the chance that he will rebound in 2019.
The flaws that earned Beckham a place on the free agent market shouldn’t dispel the Tigers from taking a long look at him, though. He has more upside than most of the shortstop options within the Tigers’ price range. It feels like he has been around forever, but he’s only 28 years old and is only one year removed from a 3.4 WAR season in 2017. There is still plenty of time for Beckham to return to form.
Even a modest rebound would be more than beneficial for the Tigers.
Beckham doesn’t have to be a star to fill the club’s gap at short. His Steamer-projected line of .241/.297/.392 works out to an 89 wRC+, 11 percent below average. Pair that with his average defense, and that’s worth about 1 WAR over the course of a full season. If he were to be worth roughly a full win, even at the $4.3 million salary figure that he was projected for, he would be worth over four million in excess value. And he will likely come cheaper than that.
There’s reason to think that Beckham is able to overcome his struggles in 2018. A cratering batting average on balls in play and a nine percentage point dip in hard contact were largely to blame for his struggles at the plate, but peripheral statistics would indicate that things aren’t entirely bleak. Buried deep within his 79 wRC+ are plate discipline numbers trending in the right direction. He is hitting more pitches when he decides to swing, as an 85 percent Z-swing percentage suggests. He is also swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone. These tweaks lead to a significant cutback on strikeouts, a fundamentally beneficial change.
Why wouldn’t he be a fit?
Sure, things could have gone better for him in 2018. He isn’t an excellent fielder — he’s roughly average, or slightly below that — and his bat wilted somewhat. It’s the strongest point in the case against him. But we already discussed the reasons to believe he will bounce back. Detroit is obviously not going to be signing Manny Machado, and there’s little in the tier(s) between “superstar” and “roster filler.” It’s not like contenders will be clamoring to sign Beckham either. Aside from the New York Yankees, the top teams in the game are pretty much set in the middle infield.
Everything in today’s game comes down to the expected production of excess value. Teams want to make a profit. It’s a fact evidenced by everything from the manipulation of player control and arbitration eligibility to swapping major league ballplayers for ones who can barely drive. When spending his allowance, general manager Al Avila has a history of favoring players that are assured to perform at a certain level, but Beckham is the opposite of consistent. The equation is stacked against him.
But if the Tigers don’t aggressively pursue Beckham (or another shortstop), it’s about money. That’s the bottom line.
Will he sign with Detroit?
It makes all the sense in the world for all parties involved. The Tigers need a shortstop, and Beckham provides the services required of one. The building blocks are there for him to do so at a high level. For his part, Beckham isn’t likely to find a much better landing spot than Detroit. Signing on to play in the Motor City would equate to consistent playing time, meager competition, and a long leash.
That said, don’t expect the Tigers to be major players when it comes to Beckham’s suitors. They would likely prefer a low-variance, grizzled veteran to serve as their stopgap. Between an established history of showing preference to veterans and Beckham so recently being a bad ballplayer, there’s no reason to expect the front office to look favorably on the young infielder. If the Tigers don’t predict enough excess value to pursue Beckham, they will look elsewhere, even though the potential payoff is so high.