The key stats for Billy Burns’ 2016 season with the Royals: 24 games, 40 plate appearances, three stolen bases and one insect cared for.
Burns, who was acquired by the Royals in a July trade with the A’s, was the main guardian of Rally Mantis Jr. It wasn’t a task that Burns begrudged, but he would be pleased to make his name known to fans in 2017 for his play on the field.
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“I’m glad to put it in the past,” Burns said Friday, “and hopefully I can just get out to being a baseball player this year.”
Burns hopes to get that chance with the Royals, but a roster crunch may force him to start the season at Class AAA Omaha. The Royals likely will have three spots open for position players on the 25-man roster when camp breaks.
The competition is stiff: outfielder Peter O’Brien has been mashing early this spring, Whit Merrifield could start at second and offers depth in the infield and outfield, while Christian Colon and Cheslor Cuthbert are also in the running to be the starter at second base and/or provide infield depth. Outfielder Terrance Gore is also in the mix.
Still, when asked about Burns, Royals manager Ned Yost ticked off some of the positives.
“Billy has got the ability switch hit, he’s got speed, he’s got athleticism and he’s a pretty good outfielder,” Yost said. “There’s a lot to like about him.”
Burns also has options, which doesn’t work in his favor. The Royals could send him to Omaha and not worry about another team claiming him.
But, as Yost noted, there is much to like. Burns was a revelation in his first full season with the A’s in 2015 when he finished fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Burns hit .294, scored 70 runs, hit nine triples and stole 26 bases.
Burns’ speed is perhaps his greatest attribute. Statcast numbers from 2015 show that Burns’ time from home to first on “competitive plays,” was the best in the majors at 3.85 seconds. That beat out former Royal Jarrod Dyson and Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton.
While speed never slumps, Burns did at the plate in 2016. His average dropped to .235, combined between the Royals and A’s, with 17 steals, albeit in 223 fewer plate appearances.
Burns, 27, believes his speed can help him bounce back.
“I think it all kind of stems from my legs, just being able to cover some ground in the outfield, run the bases hard, score runs and help the team win anyway I can,” he said.
It’s why Burns focused in the offseason on strengthening his legs. He also has made it a point to talk with coach Rusty Kuntz, who works with base runners and outfielders.
“He’s a wealth of knowledge and I’ve just been picking his brain all the time,” Burns said. “Sometimes, I just go over there and whatever situation is going on, maybe there’s a runner on first, and I’ll ask, ‘Hey, what do you think he’s trying to do over here?’ That kind of thing.
“We just have conversations all the time about base running, outfield, everything. He’s been awesome.”
While Yost didn’t use the word awesome to describe Burns, he did say: “He’s definitely a guy we like a lot.”
Burns, who struck out in his only at-bat in Friday’s Cactus League game against the Dodgers, is batting .143 this spring, but hopes that he can do enough to make the team when camp breaks.
“I think it’s kind of understood they just want to see what I can do and see how I can help the team,” Burns said, “so hopefully I can go out there and play hard and show them my value.”
Value as a player more than an insect caretaker.