When Maicer Izturis announced his retirement last week he essentially handed the backup infielder job to Darwin Barney. And if you're looking for a backup infielder then there is certainly a lot to like about Barney. Barney is a a former gold glove winner and has been around the game for a while. But, there's also a desire to have someone else in competition for the utility man job as Darwin Barney is a light hitter (career OPS of .633) and at 30 years old there would seem to be little chance of progression. While many of us feel that the job will be his there is one man in Jays camp who I think should be heavily considered for the job.
For those who don't know about Andy Burns here's the quick rundown. Burns was drafted by the Jays in the 2011 draft out of the University of Arizona. Burns moved all over Jays prospect lists as he experienced a great deal of ups and downs. In 2013 Burns slashed .288/.346/.470 across two levels. He also hit 15 homeruns, drove in 85 runs and stole 33 bases. By the end of the season Burns had placed himself in a good place within the franchise. 2014 was not as kind to Burns as he spent the entire year in New Hampshire where he still displayed some power (15 homeruns) and speed (18 SB) but overall we saw a decline as his batting average dropped to .255.
Even with a sub par 2014, some (including myself) thought that Burns still stood a chance to see some time in Toronto in 2015 due to the hole at 2B and consistent decline of Brett Lawrie. But, trades for Josh Donaldson and Devon Travis, plus the rise of Ryan Goins, shut down any window Burns would have had. Burns spent the entire 2015 season in Buffalo where he experienced a career high batting average of .291. This can be mostly attributed to his ability to cut down on strikeouts, he averaged 96 strikeouts in 2013 and 2014 and saw this drop to 72 in 2015. What might be concerning is that while he made more contact he saw a reduction in power that saw him hit only 5 homeruns in 2015.
This brings us to this season. When the team decided not to add Burns to the 40 man roster before the rule 5 draft, some of us thought he stood a good chance to be taken. This was not the case and Burns will start 2016 in the Jays organization. Burns comes into camp as a guy who has an uncertain future with the Jays. Burns has spent most of his career at 3B but has the ability to play anywhere in the infield. The problem for Burns is that his chances of seeing time at anywhere in the infield is low given that Donaldson, Tulo, and Travis are all with the team for at least the next few seasons. And at 25 years old, Burns is now at a point where he should start seeing some time in the bigs. The Jays now need to decide what in what way does Burns offer the most value to the franchise? Could that be as a backup infielder?
Versatility- While Darwin Barney might have a better glove, Burns definitely has him beat in his ability to play multiple positions. Over the course of Barney's 6 years of moving in and out of the major leagues he has spent 95.8% of his time at second base. Burns, by contrast, has logged over 2500 innings at third while getting another 533 innings at 2B, and 797 innings at SS in his minor league career. He's also played 1B and some outfield.
The versatility becomes a big factor when you consider the roster makeup. Since the Jays will be carrying EE, Smoak, and Colabello (none of which can play anywhere besides 1B/DH). This means a backup who can play 2B, 3B, and SS would carry a lot of value. If Barney were to win the backup job he would most likely stay at second and Goins would have to move to accommodate whoever is getting the day off.
Offense- I used to be one of those people who looked at a backup infielder and thought "as long as he can man multiple positions, he's fine." We don't always realize how big of an impact these backup players make on the team. But, last year alone guys like Chris Colabello and Ryan Goins went from "back ups" to combining for 700+ at bats. Cliff Pennington wasn't acquired until August 8th and he still got 92 plate appearances.
In Barney's 6 year career he has complied a career slash line of .246/.294/.339; he hasn't shown much in the way of power (21 career home runs) or speed (20 career stolen bases). He holds a career -59.3 offensive runs scored (fangraphs). While Burns has had his ups and downs in the minors he has still posted a career slash of .272/.337/.428. He's also hit 47 homeruns and stolen 74 bases over the last 5 years. While we can expect a certain level of regression as he makes the bigs, the offensive potential is much greater with Burns than it is with Barney.
Burn's future- As it stands right now Andy Burns has a tough future with the Jays. With all infield positions being locked down for the foreseeable future there doesn't seem to be much of a place for Burns in coming years. This means the Jays have two options for him A) make him a utility infielder or B) trade him.
If the Jays decided to keep him in the organization then it seems pointless to have him spend the next few years spinning his year in Buffalo. The next potential job opening wouldn't be
for two years for 3 years when Donaldson hits the free agency market. His best value to the organization would be moving around the infield and contributing at the major league level. If this is the plan then why not let him start now? Whoever wins will only be with the team until Travis comes back and Goins resumes his utility duties. So this might be the best chance to get Burns some big league reps.
If the Jays are considering trading Burns then having him make the team can only help. The fact that no one claimed Burns during the rule 5 draft would indicate that as it stands there isn't much of a desire for the guy. If the Jays bring him north and he performs well then later on he could be looked at as a quality player who can multiple positions. Guys like that are always in demand. If Burns were to struggle then he can be sent back to Buffalo and his trade value would still be roughly what it is right now.
Regular At Bats- If the front office still views Burns as part of the team's future plans then having him lose out on regular at bats could hurt his development. Travis is projected to be back sometime in May so Burns could miss 1-2 months worth of at bats in Buffalo. But, as previously mentioned, there is no immediate need for Burns to start in Toronto. So, even if he misses some at bats now he will have more than enough time to make up for it over the next few seasons.
40-man roster- Burns is in camp as a non-roster invitee, this means if the Jays were to pick him they would need to add him to the 40 man roster and remove someone. This is probably the biggest hurdle, but not one that can't be overcome. Joe Biagini stands a chance of being offered back to the Giants who could want him back. Additionally, both Junior Lake and Ezequiel Carrera are out of options. Since at least one of them will be getting sent down there's the possibility of losing one on the waiver wire. Steve Delabar and Arnold Leon are in the same boat as well. There's always the risk of losing a guy when you remove him from the 40 man roster but I think there are at least a handful of candidates who the Jays could risk. Guys like Matt Dominguez, Darrell Ceciliani, and Ben Rowen come to mind.
Darwin Barney- Darwin Barney certainly brings something to the table himself. Barney is clearly the better defensive player, but I believe his lack of versatility make him a less attractive option. Barney is older and can be described as a veteran. But, he's never been a part of a competitive team and has never played in a postseason game. While I like Darwin Barney I believe that Burns is the better option for this Jays team.
In the end, whoever wins the job will most likely only be with the team until Devon Travis comes back. But that doesn't mean that it's not an important decision. The Jays are in a win-now scenario and that means they need to select the best man for the job. I for one, believe the best man for the job is Andy Burns.