Floundering Rays: Mike Montgomery, Tim Beckham

Not so long ago, Tampa Bay’s Tim Beckham and Mike Montgomery (then with Kansas City) were the talk of the prospect world. Both originally acquired out of high school, Beckham, a shortstop, was the first overall selection in the 2008 amateur draft, while Montgomery, a left-handed starter, was nabbed with the 36th pick. But then a funny thing happened along the way to MLB stardom: The prospects struggled.

The Background

Baseball America’s Top 100 list from 2009 featured Beckham at 28th. Both players appeared on the publication’s 2010 list, the young pitcher came in at 39th and the infielder at 67th. In 2011, Beckham fell off the list and into the prospect abyss. Montgomery, on the other hand, peaked in the 19th slot. I didn’t begin compiling Top 100 lists at FanGraphs until 2010. That year, I ranked Beckham 27th and Montgomery came in at No. 29. In 2011, the shortstop was off the list and the tall, lanky lefty was sitting pretty as the 21st overall prospect. His decline began shortly thereafter.

Beckham’s trip to prospect purgatory came from disappointing results both at the plate and in the field. Prior to 2013, the 23-year-old shortstop’s batting average failed to top .275, he never tapped into his raw power with a career high of 12 homers coming in 2011, and he displayed poor base running skills by getting caught 24 times in 59 attempts between 2009 and ’10. In five full seasons, the former top draft-eligible prospect in the nation failed to top a .740 OPS. Defensively, Beckham’s range was considered modest and it was suggested by more than one talent evaluator that a move to second or third base was inevitable.

Montgomery, who turns 24 on July 1, caught the attention of talent evaluators from around baseball in 2009 when he split the year between two A-ball levels and posted an ERA of 2.20. The talented southpaw’s success continued into 2010 but he then injured his forearm and was never the same again — even though he avoided the knife. Over the next two seasons, his ERA never dipped below 5.32, his strikeout rate dropped and his above-average control went the way of the dinosaurs.

The Now

Both players are looking to rekindle past glory days. On the surface, Beckham’s 2013 numbers are a bit misleading — especially if you look at his more than respectable .281 batting average. As he repeats Triple-A, that batting average is the result of an increase in BABIP from .316 in 2012 to .364 this season. His strikeout rate remains high at 22% and he’s managed to clear the fences just once in 228 at-bats. The Georgia native has been particularly ineffective against left-handed pitchers with an OPS of .560.

When I recently watched Beckham play on June 18, I noticed that his bat speed was what is sometimes referred to as “slider bat speed” — meaning he struggles against good velocity in the 90s but can put a good swing on a mid-to-high-80s pitch. In his first at-bat of this game he had trouble getting around on a veteran minor league pitcher’s 89-90 mph fastball but managed to hit a single back up the middle on a hanging breaking ball. In his second at-bat, he hit a weak flyball to right field on a 90 mph fastball and in his third at-bat he chased a high 90 mph fastball for a strikeout. In the field, Beckham didn’t get a ton of fielding action but he showed modest range but handled everything hit to him. He worked well around the bag on double plays.

Montgomery began the year on the disabled list, thanks to a balky left shoulder. His season didn’t begin until late April and he made two A-ball appearances before moving up to Triple-A. He’s allowed a ton of baserunners at the senior level with 38 hits and 16 walks in 36 innings of work. The 6’4” California native typically produces above-average ground-ball rates but that rate has been merely average in 2013.

In his heyday, Montgomery was capable of working 90-95 mph with his fastball, with pinpoint control, earning the pitch a “plus” designation. How times have changed. When I watched him pitch, his fastball was peaking at 91 mph and sitting 89-90. He maintained his velocity well and was still hitting 90 mph in the sixth inning but his command and control had both deserted him. He pitched consistently away to right-handed hitters with his heater and, when he did come inside with it the balls were creamed.

Despite the lack of velocity, Montgomery worked off the fastball and sprinkled in both his curveball and changeup. His curveball was not sharp on this day and he had difficulties throwing it for strikes. The southpaw struggled with the feel for his changeup early on in the contest but started throwing some wicked offerings in the third inning.

The Future

Beckham’s lack of premium bat speed is not exactly the final nail in his coffin but it certainly impacts his overall ceiling. He also lacks a standout tool. He doesn’t hit for a particularly high average, he doesn’t hit for power and he doesn’t steal a lot of bases — although he’s made some strides in his base running. Defensively, he can play an OK shortstop but has also seen time at second base. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the organization give him some time at the hot corner in an effort to increase his defensive value. Beckham is a solid-but-unspectacular baseball player and could eek out a living as a second division regular or platoon player.

Based on this outing, I would grade Montgomery’s fastball potential as a 50 (average offering) on the 20-80 scouting scale, while also giving a 60 (plus offering) to the changeup and a 45-50 for the curveball. That would lead to a modest future as a No. 4/5 starter rather than the top-of-the-order projection from 2010-11. The injuries to his forearm and shoulder are worrisome, not to mentioned the diminished fastball velocity and lack of improvements in the breaking ball. On top of that, his delivery includes some effort to it and I worry about the long-term affect it could have on his shoulder.

Neither player should be given up on at this point, but it’s hard to envision either player reaching their once lofty ceilings.

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Marc Hulet has been writing at FanGraphs since 2008. His work focuses on prospects and fantasy. Follow him on Twitter @marchulet.

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I think you are being overly generous in your evaluation of both players .It seems like they have reached the point where their repeated failure and lack of performance might have destroyed their confidence . It’s hard for me to see a future as a major league regular for either one .