The list of “nearly” men in baseball is a long one. Countless thousands of fantastic players, guys who dominated at the high school and/or college level, never got the opportunity to play at the big league level. There is a also an endless queue of men who had a cup of coffee in the Major Leagues – they played sparingly and didn’t impress enough to stay up. No one knows the chances to succeed in baseball are practically insurmountable more than the players themselves. 40 rounds of draft selections every year (it was 50 rounds until last season), the long road through each step of the minors leagues (instructional, rookie, Low-A, High-A, AA, AAA), winter ball in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, Arizona Fall League for hot prospects, etc. So when the almost-miraculous door opens to play for an MLB team, it’s one which must be grabbed with both hands. There are tons of players trying to take your job and your own GM is always planning for your departure.
In December of 2013, Billy Beane traded lefty relief pitcher Jerry Blevins to the Nationals for Double-A outfielder Billy Burns. The Nationals’ minor league player of the year in 2013, Burns batted .325 with a combined 72 steals at High-A and AA. Power was not his forte, having hit only one home run since being drafted out of Mercer in 2008, and that was for Low-A Auburn, New York. Nats GM Mike Rizzo needed to beef up his bullpen, and Blevins was coming off of a fine season with Oakland, going 5-0 with an ERA of 3.15. Rizzo already had outfielders like Bryce Harper, Jason Werth and Denard Span, so Burns was deemed expendable. It was a trade that made sense for both teams.
Burns began last season with the AA-Midland Rockhounds, and while his batting average of .250 was decent, it was his stolen bases total of 51 in 91 games which earned him a promotion to AAA-Sacramento. He struggled in the PCL at the plate, hitting .193 in 28 games, but he did make his big league debut as a September call-up to Oakland. Burns had only one hit in 13 games, although he mainly appeared as a pinch-runner and only got six at-bats. It looked as though the plan with Burns for this year would be to prove he could hit AAA pitching and play a full year for the Nashville Sounds. Yet Burns had a great Cactus League and broke camp with the big club. He was only there for the first two games and was sent down after Josh Reddick came off the DL, but then raked at AAA, hitting .315 in 21 games.
When Burns was recalled to Oakland, it was mostly because of the failings of Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry (both haven’t hit a lick) and the omnipresent injury issues with Coco Crisp. The A’s were in an awful slide so a job was there to be won, and thus far Burns has done just that. He’s basically the everyday center fielder (being a switch-hitter makes him immune to Bob Melvin’s platoons) and is batting a robust .293. I had the chance to interview Burns on my SportsByline radio show Tuesday, and he is staying modest. When I inquired about his feelings on being traded, he said, “I didn’t think I was the kind of player other teams would want to trade for. You never know what’s going to happen in baseball. You could be playing for a different team the next day.”
That is especially true when Beane is pulling the strings. But I think the A’s will hold on to Burns for the near future. He’s young, cheap, and presently playing well both offensively and defensively. When I told him his home run he hit on the first pitch of Saturday’s game in Tampa Bay was a sign that the A’s season was turning around for the better, he said, “I have no idea how I did that.” Humble, diminutive, yet fast, fast, fast. I think Burns might be around these parts for a while.