PORT CHARLOTTE — The way last season ended, Tim Beckham could not have seemed more irrelevant to the Rays, sent down after late-season mental lapses, then sent home for September even as two infielders were summoned to fill in off their couches.
The way this season is starting, Beckham could not seem more important to the Rays, slated initially for a key super-utility role and then, with Matt Duffy's stalled heel rehab, shifted to what looks to be the starting shortstop job, impressing since camp opened with his performance and attitude.
"I think he came in very motivated and has basically taken to an opportunity to make the most of it," manager Kevin Cash said. "(Beckham has) always been a guy who's been adamant about playing time, and he's earned some playing time, no doubt about it. We're happy for him."
As much as spring training performance typically doesn't matter, for Beckham it has, not just in how well he has played — working good at-bats, hitting with power, picking balls around the infield, embracing learning the outfield — but how he has gone about it, impressing teammates, old and new.
"I think he came in focused, and he's looked really good," said veteran third baseman Evan Longoria. "I've seen him here early, I've seen him working in the cage before anyone else. Not to say those things are indicative of how a guy's going to play, but I think it shows a refocus and a commitment to wanting to be the best player he can be this year, and the understanding that he needs to change some things, that some things need to change."
Newcomer Rickie Weeks has been similarly impressed.
"I was wondering why he hasn't been playing (previously), to be honest with you," said Weeks, a 13-year veteran who has been a bit of a mentor this spring. "For him to come in the way he's been working, the way he's been going about his business, he's been A-1. Just great. That's my take. We've been hanging out a lot lately, and just talking with him, his mind is clear and he's ready to compete."
Beckham, who lives with the tag of being drafted ahead of the much more successful Buster Posey in 2008, had to be prodded to talk even a little about how last season ended. He said he obviously wasn't happy with the Rays' decision but knew he had no recourse.
"Sometimes there are situations where you have to accept it and you can't really do anything about it," he said. "In this game of baseball, there's going to be things thrown your way all the time. And you act accordingly."
Rays officials also want to leave those transgressions in the past.
"Obviously we took it seriously, but I think when we sat down and looked at it after the season, it was pretty clear to us how to proceed," senior vice president Chaim Bloom said. "We thought for our sake and for Tim's sake it was best to be able to go forward and be forward-looking. This is a game, and this is a business where it's really hard to have success if you are always lugging your past with you. You want to learn from things that happen; we all do. But at the end of the day, you have to be able to look forward."
The Rays tempered their actions, using a paperwork maneuver (called "recalled not to report") to give Beckham his major-league service time for the final month of last year, which made him eligible for an extra early year of arbitration as a Super Two, and a $300,000-plus raise to $885,000. Though as part of that tradeoff, his final option was rescinded (because he was in the minors for less than 20 days), so he could still be sent down this season.
Beckham, 27, has done his part, eyeing the opportunity for the increased playing time he has always believed he deserved. He looks to be the starting shortstop until Duffy returns — or unless the Rays make a late spring pickup; some scout chatter is that they are looking — then slide into what can still be a big role, starting versus lefties and coming off the bench other nights, his combination of power, speed and versatility adding to his value.
"I want to play," Beckham said. "Everyone in this locker room should feel the same. If you don't, you shouldn't be here. No one should want to not be in the lineup, I'd hope. If I can help the team win every night, I want to help the team win every night."
Sounds like a plan, for now anyway.