The addition of Tim Beckham may have been the highlight of the Orioles 2017 season. The shortstop made his way to Baltimore via a trade with the Tampa Bay Rays on July 31 and immediately filled a gaping void in the club’s lineup. It would be fair to say that he greatly exceeded expectations, and that is exactly why the organization should seriously evaluate his future right now.
Prior to 2017, Beckham was a former first overall pick that had failed to live up to his lofty potential. Over 151 career major league games, he was slashing .238/.288/.431 with 14 home runs, 54 RBI, 19 doubles, nine triples and a 1.3 WAR, according to Baseball Reference.
Last season, across both Baltimore and Tampa Bay, the 27-year-old hit .278/.328/.454 with 22 home runs, 62 RBI, 13 doubles and five triples in 137 games to go along with a 3.3 WAR. August was especially hot for Beckham. His first month as an Oriole saw him hit .394 with six home runs and 19 RBI in just 29 games.
Adding to that value is Beckham’s contract situation. He can’t become a free agent until 2021 and this will be the first season in which he qualified for arbitration. He will make $3.35 million in 2018.
All of these factors together: coming off of a career-best season, several years of team control remaining, and entering his performance-peak age; make the case of Beckham’s value, which for Major League veterans seems to be deteriorating a bit.
Look no further than the Orioles very own Manny Machado. Trade rumors have swirled around the Gold Glove third baseman all winter, and yet he remains in Baltimore. Why? Because he has just one season left before hitting free agency, so teams are unwilling to part with top-tier prospects in exchange for what amounts to a rental. The Orioles, understandably, don’t want to trade their star for peanuts.
Baseball organizations, like any other organizations really, are all about getting quality labor at the cheapest price. That includes highly talented athletes. Although Machado is the far superior player, Beckham could be the more valuable trade chip.
The market for Machado, and other players that are approaching free agency, is limited to teams that are ready to win-now, including a few division rivals, which the Orioles have made clear they are not interested in dealing with. Beckham, on the other hand, could appeal to just about any club looking for a guy to handle shortstop in the foreseeable future at a reasonable price. It’s a bigger pool from which to draw offers and could result in a better return package overall.
It is quite possible that Beckham’s best years are ahead of him. He turns 28 later this month, initiating the beginning of his supposed “prime years”. But when exactly a player will peak is purely a guess. Jason Heyward looked like a Hall of Famer-in-the-making as a 25-year-old MVP candidate with the Cardinals. Now he’s a 28-year-old with a really nice glove and lackluster offensive output.
Making a decision on Beckham now would show that the Orioles have learned from mistakes of the recent past. Machado and Zach Britton are two players that were each worth a farm system full of prospects at one point, but instead Baltimore held onto them and could now lose both for nothing following the season. It seems the same fate may lay ahead of Jonathan Schoop. Doing the same with Beckham a few years from now would be frustrating to say the least.
Of course, Beckham is not approaching free agency anytime soon. The Birds have time to feel out the league and search for a great deal if they can find one. But who’s to say the shortstop doesn’t fall back to earth in 2018, and then his value is diminished?
In September of last season, Beckham slashed .180/.255/.348 with four home runs, seven RBI and three doubles in 21 games. Not to mention, he benefited from a .365 batting average on balls in play throughout the summer, a number sure to drop in the upcoming season. On top of that, the shortstop is gifted with above-average athleticism and speed, both of which will decline with age as they do with every player.
The point is that the Orioles still don’t seem to have a plan for this off-season. As it stands, the club is not a playoff contender and they don’t have the look of an organization that will be ready to compete inside of two or three years. So why not dangle Beckham out there and see what bites? Better to sell high now and retool for the future, than to stand pat and watch all of your team’s valuable players do their time in town and then bolt when team control expires.
The Orioles are currently on the path to mediocrity. A year from now, if nothing changes, Machado, Britton, Brad Brach and Adam Jones will all be gone via free agency or otherwise. And Schoop will be entering his final season of team control. Will the O’s be unable to find a suitable trade partner for the All-Star second baseman, similar to what they have done with Machado? Meanwhile, Beckham draws another season closer to free agency.
For the Birds to alter their trajectory, they will have to change their methods a bit. That means either signing players to extensions sooner, or selling them earlier in their careers for worthwhile young talent. Beckham seems like a good starting point.