Something about the name Billy just lends itself to speed. Billy Hamilton stole a record 155 bases in a single minor league season and might already be the fastest player in the majors just 13 games into his career. Billy the Kid had one of the quickest guns in the west, just as Billy Beane has had the quickest trigger finger in the AL West this winter. Billy Crystal has a lightning-fast wit, Billy Dee Williams once owned the fastest starship in the galaxy, and Billy Mays could fast-talk you into buying anything on TV.
It is in this vein that I introduce you to Oakland's newest player, Billy Burns. The 24-year-old (who needed only 21 years to achieve that age due to rushing through his teens) was named the Washington Nationals' 2013 Minor League Player of the Year, due mostly to his speed. Burns is a switch-hitting outfielder who has shown the ability to hit for a high average (.312 career), get on base (.421 career OBP), control the strike zone (more walks than strikeouts overall), and, of course, steal bases both prolifically and efficiently (125-for-142 in 266 games, 88% success rate). According to John Sickels, Burns could have enough range for center field, but his arm is on the weak side. The only thing missing from his game is power; he's hit one home run in 1155 plate appearances, and his isolated power clocks in at .067 for his career. To put that number into perspective, Eric Sogard's mark was .098 last year, and he could barely hit a home run if he was standing on second base.
Burns has built a name for himself as a top prospect despite a lack of draft pedigree. He was selected by the Nationals in the 32nd round in 2011, but he has improved in every professional season (with the caveat that he has always been a bit old for his league). He split 2013 between Single-A and Double-A, batting .315/.425/.383 in 540 PA's with a 72:54 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 74 steals in 81 attempts (91% success rate). His average and OBP actually went up slightly after his promotion to Double-A, so he wasn't over-matched in the higher league. In addition, Jane Lee reports that his splits were almost identical from both sides of the plate last year (slightly better from the right side), so he's not just a platoon player. If I had to guess, I would say that Burns will probably start the year at Double-A Midland with an eye toward fast-tracking him (pun intended) to Sacramento, and Lee echoes that prediction in her column. She also mentions that Burns will be in Oakland's major league camp this spring, which means that he'll get to work with Rickey Henderson.
It's not difficult to see how Burns could fit into Oakland's future plans. Coco Crisp is a free agent after 2014, and there's no guarantee that he will be back after that. Craig Gentry is best suited as a platoon player and fourth outfielder due to his batting splits, so, while he would be an acceptable replacement for Coco, Burns may prove to be a better long-term option if he continues to develop as he moves up the ranks. If something goes wrong with either Coco or Gentry this season, then who knows -- perhaps we could see Burns as a weapon off the bench in September, similar to what Cincinnati did with Hamilton this past year.
In the end, Oakland traded Jerry Blevins' rapid metabolism for Burns' rapid legs. We all love Blevins (note that that's "love" in the present tense, because we will always love him), but Oakland had so many relievers on the roster that they were going to lose a major league arm on waivers if they didn't deal someone during the offseason. The A's still have Sean Doolittle and Fernando Abad from the left side, and it's not out of the question that Drew Pomeranz could be used out of the pen next year. Blevins was beloved on a personal level but expendable in baseball terms, and the A's turned a short-term, short-inning commodity into a long-term asset with real future value. That's what we call a Billy Beane Special (nobody calls it that).
I have a feeling that we are really going to enjoy watching Billy Burns play in Oakland if/when he eventually reaches the majors. Just don't blink, or you might miss him.
Postscript: A few tweets from Susan Slusser about Burns and Blevins (or check out her Drumbeat post on the trade):
Forst confirms Burns likely to start season at Double-A but could move up fast. He'll be at big-league camp. #Athletics— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
Burns was taught to switch hit AFTER he was drafted, with idea that he'd get down line even faster hitting LH. He stole 74 bases last year.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
Forst, asked how unusual it is to learn to switch hit at pro level, said the only other player he could think of to do it was Billy Beane.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
Report from a scout on Burns: "Elite speed, swallows ground in OF. Very adept at getting on base from both sides. Impact stolen base nos."— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
Burns was a business major at Mercer and a big fan of the book "Moneyball." "I've always admired the way the A's do things," he says.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
Billy Burns' dad, Bob, was an NFL running back (Jets). #Athletics— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
More Doolittle: "Jerry was like the dad in the bullpen, the leader, for all intents and purposes." #Athletics— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013
Abad sounds like most likely first option to fill the Blevins bullpen role. #Athletics— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) December 11, 2013