Being drafted high comes with high expectations. Over the past several drafts, a number of top picks have failed to materialize into top prospects. Chief among those players are Josh Vitters and Tim Beckham. Vitters was the third player selected in the 2007 draft, and Beckham was the first player taken in the 2008 draft. Hindsight is 20/20, and it’s crazy to think what the Cubs and the Rays could have had instead of these two, but today we’re going to focus on these two players outside of the expectations that come with their draft status.
One of the coolest features of Baseball Prospectus’s player cards is the BP Articles section, which shows you wherever a player was mentioned in an article at BP. This is going to be really cool in a decade, when we’ll be able to go back and look at every prospect evaluation and compare it to how those players’ careers turned out, but it’s also useful for tracking a prospect’s stock.
Vitters’ name first appeared at BP prior to the 2008 season when he ranked 45th in Kevin Goldstein’s Top 100. He was always lauded for his beautiful swing that is incredibly quick and short, giving Vitters tremendous plate coverage. He also has the makings of becoming an average defender at third base. As soon as he was drafted, Vitters was expected to quickly rise into his ceiling, but things haven’t gone as planned.
Five drafts have gone by since the Cubs took Vitters. He’s still relatively young (23 as of August) and he has taken big steps in plate discipline, but it remains an issue. Advanced offerings have challenged Vitters over the past few minor league seasons, and he’s sort of fallen out of the top prospect scene, but many evaluators still see a bright future for the Anaheim native. One Cubs’ official weighed in on his defense: “He’s got an above-average arm, really good hands, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to [stick at third base].” The hit tool may never be special, but if it can be league-average, Josh Vitters could play a decade in the majors. It’s not what you hope for from a third overall pick, but it’s worth a ton.
Up-the-middle stars are also worth a ton. Tim Beckham was the first player taken in the 2008 draft, and for good reason. Kevin Goldstein wrote about Beckham on July 6, 2011 and noted positive reports about his defense, with some encouragement that he might be able to stick at shortstop. Beckham still has his believers, but his circumstances have changed a bit.
In May, Beckham was handed a 50-game suspension for his second violation of baseball’s drug policy. It wasn’t a PED but rather a “recreational drug.” Beckham had gotten off to a slow start in April, and he’d miss nearly two months before returning. This offseason, the Rays acquired Yunel Escobar to play shortstop, a move that many thought indicated hesitation to hand the reigns to Beckham. While the Rays were disappointed in Beckham, the 22-year-old did win back some favor when he took responsibility for his actions and worked hard during his suspension.
There are still some mixed feelings on Beckham’s defense, even within the Rays organization. Some see him as a second baseman while others see him as an average major league shortstop or, at the very least, a utility middle infielder that provides the unquantifiable value of flexibility. Offensively, he figures to hit enough to play up the middle with gap power and an improving approach.
Beckham might end up being a fine player, but it may not be as a Ray. He could have more value to another organization, and the Rays may be able to mix and match with their needs. He could be a very solid utility infielder that adds a couple wins per year to a club.
A lot would need to change before Vitters or Beckham lit the world on fire. Neither player figures to become a star player, but both could become quality big leaguers. Their draft positions may make it impossible to view them as success stories, but the reality is that the Cubs and the Rays made choices that most teams would have made. Prospects very rarely live up to their ceilings.