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Despite slow start, Tim Beckham should start at third base when he returns

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Beckham got off to a dreadful start with the bat and glove. But the former first overall pick is a part of the O’s future and needs to play immediately.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Another injured Orioles is eligible to be activated tomorrow, when Tim Beckham will be set to rejoin the club after a core injury suffered in late April. While the level of excitement about his return is higher than that surrounding Colby Rasmus’ return, the prospect of getting Beckham back doesn’t seem to move the needle much in Birdland. But Beckham needs to play upon his return despite the presence of Danny Valencia, one of the team’s best hitters this season.

Beckham has had an interesting journey. The first overall pick in the 2008 draft dealt with top prospect status, slow development in the minors, a 50 game suspension for marijuana use, and a freak ACL injury before establishing himself as a major leaguer. He finally got significant time in the major leagues in 2015, but shuttled back and forth between Tampa Bay and Durham during the 2015 and 2016 seasons and never got his game going. He hit a combined fourteen home runs and his OPS’ were .702 and .735 during those two seasons respectively.

Beckham got regular playing time in 2017 and was putting a fairly productive season together; he was at least becoming a quality major league utility player. When the O’s acquired him on July 31 for minor league pitcher Tobias Myers, it was a play for the present and the future. J.J. Hardy and Ryan Flaherty were both injured and Beckham filled in at shortstop immediately. But he was a young player with first overall pick pedigree and over three years of club control left.

I was very pleased with the deal as were many O’s fans. Beckham rewarded the O’s front office, putting together a .306/.348/.523 in August and September and finishing the season with a grand total of 22 home runs. I was even more pleased with the deal.

When Manny Machado expressed desire to play shortstop following Hardy’s departure, Beckham was a good team player and moved to third base despite appearing in only nine games there in his career. That’s where the good part of the story ends. Beckham was dreadful at the plate this season, posting a .179/.247/.262 with one home run. This is better than Chris Davis, but not by much.

Defensively, he looked like a player learning on job, which was the case and not completely his fault. He committed three errors in twenty games at third base. Advanced metrics graded him as a slightly below average defender.

Now that Beckham is about to return, the O’s have an interesting decision to make. Immediately sliding him back onto third base would leave Danny Valencia, one of the team’s most productive offensive players this season, without a position. Valencia has posted an OPS of .800, slugged six home runs, and has become as a fixture in the middle of the lineup. He has earned the right to play, even against right-handed pitching.

“The 2018 Orioles are a disaster with or without Valencia in the lineup,” you may say. That is true. But in addition to fielding the most competitive team possible, there is another reason for continuing to play Valencia. As we move closer to the trading deadline, a team could be in the market for a veteran hitter off the bench.

Valencia’s 2018 performance and exemplary track record against left-handed pitching (.310/.368/..489 in his career) could make him a trade chip. He wouldn’t bring anything better than a low-level prospect, but the O’s are in a position where they need to turn any expiring contracts into future assets.

But if this decision is about the future, it makes sense to put Beckham out on the field immediately. We all know Manny Machado’s contractual situation. He’ll be another jersey next season, if not before that, and middle infield prospects in the upper levels of the O’s farm system are not serious contenders to be starting in the major leagues next season. Tim Beckham will almost certainly be the starting shortstop in 2019 and that’s not a bad thing.

Sure, he’s been inconsistent during his career and 2017 was the first season that he didn’t spend time in the minors. But he finally tapped into his potential last season and is under club control through 2020. He has the capability of providing some offense from a traditionally weak-hitting position and brings some speed to the table. If the Orioles are to have any chance of fielding a competitive club next season, a productive Tim Beckham is nearly necessary to that equation.

Detractors will cite Beckham’s struggles to start the season. But those numbers came in 23 games, a very small sample size. The roster has been filled with underperformers who have been given much more of a leash than that. It is also important to note that Beckham’s struggles came while he was essentially learning a new position. When he slides back to shortstop next season, he will be comfortable defensively and able to concentrate more focus on his offensive game.

As much as I appreciate Valencia’s contributions to the 2018 O’s, Tim Beckham needs to move back into a starting role when he gets healthy. Get him back into a rhythm and ready for the 2019 campaign. Buck Showalter should get creative and find ways to get Valencia’s bat in the lineup to showcase him to a potential trade partner, but getting Beckham on the field should be the priority.

It is a very real possibility that this situation works itself out when Machado is traded for a haul of top prospects (let me dream) and creates a hole at shortstop for Beckham to fill. Then Valencia can stay at third or the club has the option of giving Steve Wilkerson an extended look.

Either way, Tim Beckham will be a part of Orioles for the next two seasons and should play immediately this season.