We all know the story by now. The Rays were considering two players for their selection at first overall in the 2008 MLB Draft. One became a superstar catcher. The other just made his big league debut last season and went down for much of 2014 with an ACL injury. The Rays selected Tim Beckham over Buster Posey, and it has haunted them ever since. Why did the Rays take Beckham over Posey? The excuse you are always going to here is that they honestly thought he was better. Obviously, though, they were wrong.
“It was an active debate, but I think at the end of the day when push came to shove and we were racing time, I think it was pretty clear to everybody that Tim Beckham was the guy at the top of our board,” Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.
“We feel like he’s got an advanced approach to the game, a genuine enthusiasm for what he does, and we feel like he’s got a great chance to be an impact player in the major leagues.”
In his assessment of the draft at the time, Keith Law agreed that Beckham was the best player on the board. More interesting, though, is the other rationale that Law mentioned.
The Rays take the best overall player on the board. The system isn’t particularly strong at middle infield, so if he stays at shortstop or moves to second, he’d probably be the second-best prospect in their system after David Price. His selection shows a willingness to think long term because they didn’t go for a player like Buster Posey who could get to the majors quicker. Instead, they took the best player available.
Law opined that the Rays selecting Beckham was not just about his talent but about a shifting organizational mindset. After selecting college players with their previous four picks, the Rays were finaly feeling confident about their major league team and decided to take a player with more talent who might take longer to develop. The Rays’ mistake was not selecting Tim Beckham but getting smug about their franchise and allowing it to affect their decision.
Is it possible that the Rays passed up Buster Posey as much because of Dioner Navarro as Tim Beckham? In 2008, Navarro was an All-Star, hitting to a .295/.349/.407 line in 470 plate appearances and throwing out 38% of attempted basestealers. The Rays thought they had their catcher of the future already in the fold. Passing on Posey was about more than just that, but combine the fact that they already had a catcher with Posey’s exorbitant bonus demands and Beckham’s presence as a ready-made alternative, and the Rays thought their decision was almost made for them. The clear problem, though, is that none of those things came true. Navarro came apart and it certainly was not a total shock–he had managed just a .238/.305/.355 line the previous two years. Posey was reportedly asking for $12 million, but he changed tune after he was selected, signing for just $6.2 million, just $50,000 more than Beckham. Beckham failing to live up to expectations was not nearly as much the Rays’ fault, but those first two assumptions caused them to make their decision for the wrong reasons. Every number one overall selection puts the drafting team at a crossroads in history–pick well and you will be praised forever, but make the wrong choice and the criticism will not stop coming. With everything on the line, the wrong variables clouded the Rays’ minds and it has cost them ever since.
The Rays made their choice of Beckham over Posey, and they will be forced to live with the effects of their decision for years to come. But even if there is nothing the Rays can do to negate their mistake, they have slowly but surely learned to get rid of the complacent mentality that played a role in their choice. The next season, the Rays pulled no punches as they traded Scott Kazmir as soon as they realized that he was not the pitcher who helped lead them to prominence. Matt Garza was dealt following the 2010 season, then James Shields after 2012, and the odds are that David Price makes it four times in five years that the Rays have traded a topflight starting pitcher. Why all the trades? Because the Rays realize that however much success they achieve, they never know when it will come to an end. They do not make those trades because they want to be successful in the long-term–they make them because they know the only thing that matters is sustaining success.
The Rays have no “win-now mode” because the sense of urgency is there every season as they juggle their ability to contend now with he ability to keep winning in the future. The Rays never lose sight of the big picture anymore, not even for a moment, and that is why their great 2008 run was only the beginning of the turnaround of their franchise. How Buster Posey and Tim Beckham have diverged as time has passed has been a wake-up call for the Rays organization. The Rays cannot take back their decision, but they will do everything in their power to make sure it does not happen again.