Name: Billy Burns
H/W: 5'9''/ 180
For much of the 2000s, the Oakland A's had little team speed to speak of. The fastest player on the A's for much of the early part of that decade was an appropriately named outfielder: Eric Byrnes. Over the past several years, the A's have added a significant amount of speed not only to their major league roster, but also to their minor league system. The more things change, however, the more they stay the same. While the spelling might be different, the fastest man in the A's organization may once again be named Burns.
Acquired by the A's during the Winter Meetings in early December, Billy Burns stole a remarkable 74 bases in just 81 chances for the Washington Nationals' High-A and Double-A affiliates in 2013. In just 266 career minor league games, Burns has 125 stolen bases. He has been caught just 17 times.
The native of Marietta, Georgia, was selected by the Nationals in the 32nd round of the 2011 draft out of Mercer University. It didn't take long for Burns to establish himself as a much more significant prospect than his draft position would have indicated. Burns debuted in the New York-Penn League, appearing in 32 games for short-season Auburn. In 107 at-bats, Burns posted a .262/.367/.355 line with 13 stolen bases in 14 opportunities. Given the extreme pitcher-friendly nature of the New York-Penn League, Burns' performance for Auburn landed him on the Nationals' prospect radar.
It quickly became apparent that Burns wasn't only fast, he was also a quick learner. That off-season, the Nationals floated the idea to Burns of switch-hitting, something he hadn't done since he was in high school. He began switch-hitting full-time at the start of the 2012 season and instantly found success. A natural right-handed hitter, Burns has posted a .310/.418/.370 line as a left-handed batter over the past two seasons. That isn't that far from his line as a right-handed batter against left-handed pitching since turning pro (.329/.416/.421).
Burns' first full professional season was spent entirely at the Low-A level with Hagerstown. In 113 games, he hit .322 with a .432 OBP and 38 stolen bases in 47 chances. Burns led the Sally League in batting. He was a little old for that level (Burns turned 23 during the final week of the 2012 season), but Burns quickly established that those numbers weren't a fluke. In 2013, he began the year with High-A Potomac. In 91 games, Burns posted a .312/.422/.391 line with a 52:37 BB:K and 54 stolen bases in 59 chances.
In early August, the Nationals promoted Burns to Double-A. He spent the final five weeks of the season with Double-A Harrisburg. His numbers remained fairly consistent despite the jump in levels. In 30 games, he had a .325/.434/.360 line with 20 stolen bases in 22 chances. Burns' BB:K with the Senators was 20:17. (As an aside, Burns' hitting coach with Harrisburg was former A's outfielder Eric Fox.) Burns finished the season with a .315/.425/.383 line in 121 games. Burns walked 72 times, struck-out just 54 times and he scored 96 runs. He was named to the Carolina League's Post-Season All-Star team and was the Nationals' Minor League Player of the Year. The A's acquired him on December 11 for reliever Jerry Blevins.
Burns' father was a running back in the NFL and the younger Burns has a build that is very similar to an NFL scat back. He's only 5'9'', but Burns has a very strong lower half that he uses to generate his plus speed. Burns is extremely patient at the plate. He chokes up on the bat and uses his compact swing to fight off pitcher's pitches and slap the ball on the ground or on a line. Burns bunts the ball well, using that skill both to advance runners and to work his own way on base. He struck-out in just 9.9% of his at-bats last season. His career OBP is .421.
Once on base, Burns is a pitcher's nightmare, and pitchers often feel they have to quick-pitch or throw fastballs to give their catchers a chance to throw Burns out on a steal attempt. Even with those ‘cheats', catchers rarely have a chance to cut Burns down on a stolen base attempt. His stolen base percentage last season was a remarkable 91.5%. In high school, Burns reportedly ran the 60-yard dash in 6.2. Needless to say, he is not just a smart base-runner, he also has elite speed.
Burns' contact-oriented approach has helped him reach base at a very high clip, but it also has limited his ability to hit for power. He has only homered once in 949 career at-bats and he has just 29 doubles and 16 triples. According to NationalsProspects.com, Burns was working on driving the ball more late last year. He isn't likely to hit for much power even if he makes that adjustment, but Burns does have a lot of physical strength that could lead to some gap power in the future.
As he advances to Triple-A and the big leagues, Burns will need to show opposing teams that he can reach the gaps so that they don't crowd him and cut-off many would-be hits to the outfield, in much the same way outfielders did to Jason Kendall when he was with the A's in the mid-2000s.
Defensively, Burns has split his time between centerfield and left field. He has above-average range in the outfield, although his arm strength is just average.
The A's were drawn to Burns' ability to get on-base, as well as his running ability and his range in the outfield.
"Billy has a unique skill set that allows him to impact the game on both sides of the ball," A's Assistant GM David Forst said. "He was one of only three minor leaguers in 2013 to have 50+ stolen bases and a .400+ OBP. And he plays an outstanding defensive centerfield. We were thrilled to add a player with his ceiling to the organization."
Burns' minor league track record is similar to that of former A's outfielder Rajai Davis, and Burns may be a similar player to Davis at the major-league level, although Davis hasn't been nearly as patient at the plate in the big leagues as he was in the minors. Current A's outfielder Craig Gentry – also acquired via trade this off-season – is another comp, although both Davis and Gentry are not switch-hitters.
The A's haven't announced their non-roster invites to major league spring training yet, but it wouldn't be surprising to see Burns on that list. Given that he only appeared in 30 games at the Double-A level last season, Burns is likely to start the 2014 season with Double-A Midland. However, if he turns some heads during spring training, he could force his way onto the Triple-A Sacramento roster.
Burns will be 24 for the majority of the 2014 season (he will turn 25 on August 30). If he posts similar numbers to the ones he posted the past two seasons, Burns could be competing for a major league roster spot by 2015.