Friction & Discipline: an Epilogue, Part Two

Photo by Revill Photographic.

(Part one.)

Immediately after the Triple-A National Championship game ended, the Tampa Bay Rays called up Tim Beckham and Jake Odorizzi. These moves had been credibly rumored for a few days, so they weren’t a surprise when they were made official.

Odorizzi’s callup made perfect sense. He had already been up to the majors twice this year (and once last year, called up by the Kansas City Royals from… the Omaha Storm Chasers). The last time he went up, it was to step in for the struggling Jeremy Hellickson, who was temporarily banished from the team in late August, basically in order to clear his head. Hellickson pitched well in his return a couple of weeks ago, but he fared poorly again on Tuesday night, the same night Odorizzi started for the Bulls against Omaha.

The Rays had rearranged the Bulls’ starting rotation two weeks ago in order to sync Odorizzi’s schedule with Hellickson’s. (The move shoved the Bulls’ J. D. Martin, the International League’s Most Valuable Pitcher, off his perch as no. 1 starter for the playoffs.) It would be no surprise to see Odorizzi take Hellickson’s next turn in the rotation. That might already have happened, in fact, had it not been for an unforeseeable cataclysm that made a deep and wide impact on the Bulls after they were done playing baseball, and that required this epilogue to hang fire until the waters calmed. Odorizzi wound up helping the Rays sooner than they expected, stepping into a critical empty space and filling it admirably — more on that later in this epilogue — precisely the sort of contingency for which they called him up. His promotion was, in other words, frictionless.

Beckham’s recall, the first of his six-year career, was of a different kind. The announcement was met with a wide range of reactions. Some thought he’d be a great asset to the Rays; others thought the promotion didn’t make him any less of a draft bust, and denounced it; still others were simply puzzled. Why had the Rays called him up, they wondered? Beckham’s numbers in 2013 improved incrementally on last year’s, and his July and August were stronger still, but he didn’t have anything like a breakthrough season. He was more confident this summer at shortstop, a job he reclaimed only by the necessity of  accident, because of Hak-Ju Lee’s season-ending injury in April (which Beckham inadvertently helped cause); but any scout can tell you that Beckham’s glove and footwork at the position probably aren’t major-league caliber. Certainly he’s a major downgrade from the Rays’ fielding dynamo, Yunel Escobar, and his bat isn’t anywhere near as potent as that of utility backup Sean Rodriguez. At the plate, his judgment remained the same, his uninspiring walk and strikeout rates (he led the Bulls in strikeouts) not that different from what they were last year.

None of that means that Beckham had not recommended himself for a big-league chance. He is an obviously improved player, with room for more development and progress, and he has shown a willingness and a determination to achieve them. He was usually the first guy at the ballpark this season, and it seemed that he was always up for optional batting practice. One of the season’s most reliable yet most curious sights arose about fifteen minutes before every game. While his teammates were stretching or tossing out in the outfield, or just hanging out in the dugout or clubhouse, Beckham could always be found in the on-deck circle, often obscured by grounds crew workers or “Star Spangled Banner” singers waiting for their moment, or other pregame personnel. He’d stand there taking imaginary cuts for a few minutes, readying himself for the in-game moment to come when he would be in the on-deck circle waiting for his turn at bat: in other words, preparing to prepare. In other words, discipline.

When the game began, though, Beckham often played with more flash than flesh. Perhaps he thought that an afternoon of hard practice entitled him to a jazzier evening performance. When he first came to Durham from Double-A Montgomery in 2011, his walk-up music was a modest little number called “I Put On A Show.” He is the type of player who will raise a triumphant fist when he hits a home run, even if the home run accomplishes nothing more than cutting a 6-2 deficit to 6-4. He has become fond of a pirouette step when he fields grounders up the middle, reorienting himself toward first base. It’s an attractive move, and it almost always results in an accurate throw, but it takes him a long time to execute the footwork, and he isn’t able to put anything on the throw itself. The more fundamental move would be to actually stop himself while still facing first base, but that requires better and stronger body control, and it’s also a less beautiful play.

Beckham has curbed his flashier tendencies this year, to a degree, but he does cause friction on the field. A startling example of this came in game three of the Governors’ Cup championship series. The top of the tenth inning was one of the game’s tensest moments. The two teams were in a scoreless tie, and the Bulls had the bases loaded with one out after a Beckham double, a sacrifice bunt, and a pair of intentional walks. Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina came to the mound to make a pitching change. Beckham began jawing at DiSarcina from third base, loudly enough for the entire ballpark to hear.

“Gary! Gary!” he barked, and then proceeded to give DiSarcina a hard time, talking so quickly that we couldn’t make out what he was saying from the press box. Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo was standing right behind Beckham in the third base coaching box, and he quickly stepped in front of Beckham as DiSarcina looked toward third, his expression a mixture of defiance and perplexity.

The matter, whatever it was, cleared up fairly quickly, but Beckham’s ire helped add fire to the drama that followed, and the fire was all Pawtucket’s: reliever Chris Martin struck out Durham’s Brandon Guyer and Mike Fontenot to keep the game scoreless, adding demonstrative words and gestures to the inning-ending freezing of Fontenot. Beckham had given Martin and his teammates the gunpowder.

The bad blood arose again, deeper in extra innings, when the Bulls threw out Jeremy Hazelbaker trying to steal second base. Beckham took the throw and made the tag. (See the image at the top.) Hazelbaker got up to walk back to the dugout, and Beckham backpedaled right in front of him, face to face, ball still in glove. Beckham’s momentum as he made the tag unquestionably put him in this position, but he did nothing to get out of Hazelbaker’s way for several long steps in this loveless pas de deux, and it looked as if Beckham was showboating the caught-stealing a bit. Hazelbaker and his teammates weren’t amused. It got heated again, until finally DiSarcina took matters into his own hands, waving off the umpire when the umpire attempted to intercede: case closed and all’s well, he seemed to be saying, more so he could focus on the game itself than because he had patched anything up with Beckham.

The next night, Beckham was thrown out stealing, and Pawtucket shortstop Heiker Meneses stood over Beckham for a long, menacing, retributive moment after making the tag. Because the previous night’s game had gone on for fourteen innings and had consequences far more major than anything resulting from the Beckham-fueled incidents, I had forgotten to ask about it afterward. The next night, following the game four series clincher, I asked Montoyo about it, and all he knew (or would tell me, anyway) was that DiSarcina had supposedly started it all by saying something to Beckham well before the tenth-inning pitching change. Even if that was true, Beckham made a poor decision to pursue an argument. The championship was on the line. This kind of guff would not be tolerated in the major leagues.

A few days later, that’s precisely where he was headed. It was a  long overdue matriculation, most people thought. Beckham was the top pick in the 2008 draft and took six seasons to reach the majors. The top picks in the three drafts that followed his (2009-11) are all in the major leagues. Two of them are the Washington Nationals’ All-Stars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper (who was also Rookie of the Year). Two of the four players chosen just after Beckham in 2008 have also been All-Stars; one, Buster Posey, was also Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player.

Beckham has always been unfairly judged by his artificial draft pedigree, and he knows it. He was quick to remind reporters, when we spoke to him about the callup after the Omaha game, that he’s still only twenty-three years old. That’s the same age as his Durham teammate Kevin Kiermaier, lately a darling of the Rays’ minor-league system. The difference is in perception: Beckham got a six-million-dollar signing bonus as a first-round pick in 2008; Kiermaier was drafted as a thirty-first round afterthought in 2010 and missed half of 2012 with a pair of hand injuries. He has little history. He received no bonus, no pedigree, and scant expectations. This past season, Kiermaier was just defining his value for the first time, whereas the mantle of expectancy and the burden of investment were laid on Beckham the day the Rays drafted him.

Now the Rays want the investment to start paying off. That’s why they called him up. If nothing else, they want to see how he handles a major-league clubhouse, and whether Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and his coaching staff like him and can work with him. That’s what this two-week trial period is about, nothing more or less. Beckham has two more seasons of minor-league options remaining with the Rays; now is the time for them to see whether they think those options will be worth using, or if it’s time to consider taking a loss on the investment. Chances are very good that Beckham will eventually grow into a serviceable utility player, perhaps even a semi-regular, especially if he can learn to play the outfield a little. He’ll probably stay with the Rays through the life of his option years. If he does, he’ll be about twenty-five years old, still very young, at the point when the Rays must make a more permanent decision about his future with them. Tuesday night’s callup may have seemed momentous to some, infuriating or puzzling to others, but it was really nothing more than the next logical chapter in the long, unresolved story of Tim Beckham. It just worked a little more friction into a narrative long fraught with it.

A cheer of happiness went up in the clubhouse when Beckham returned from the manager’s office with the printout of his flight itinerary to Tampa Bay. His teammates were genuinely glad for him. “He deserves it,” said Jason Bourgeois. “He’s going to be a really, really good player.” The cheer, however, drowned out whatever noise might have come from the subsequent summons of Jeff Beliveau and Brandon Guyer to Charlie Montoyo’s office.

It had been rumored that Beliveau would join Beckham and Odorizzi in Tampa Bay, giving the Rays another left-handed reliever in case of an extra-inning game or an extreme situational necessity. But both he and Guyer, who is also on the Rays’ 40-man roster, were informed that they would not be called up, after all. This is where the darker, harder realities asserted themselves. The stories of Beliveau and Guyer, and more, will appear here tomorrow when this epilogue continues.

 

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