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A’s and Royals Swap Center Fielders

Kansas City acquires center fielder Billy Burns from Oakland in exchange for fellow center fielder Brett Eibner.

Center fielder Brett Eibner, now of the Oakland A's.
Center fielder Brett Eibner, now of the Oakland A's.
Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

In one of the minor trades caught in the whirlwind that is the Trade Deadline, Oakland and Kansas City agreed to swap AAA center fielders. The Athletics will walk away with 27 year old Brett Eibner, and the Royals end up with 26 year old Billy Burns. While Burns has already eclipsed rookie status due to his 2015 season, Eibner has only seen a handful of at bats this year and is still technically a rookie. That being said, we will take a look at Eibner first.

The Royals selected Brett Eibner in the second round of the 2010 draft out of the University of Arkansas. He didn’t get his career started until 2011 though, debuting with Low A Kane County. Eibner hit .213/.340/.408 with 12 homers, 13 doubles, and 48 walks to 90 punch outs. The following season he was bumped up to High A Wilmington and didn’t respond well. Over 486 plate appearances he hit just .196/.299/.388, but managed 15 homers, 26 doubles, and five stolen bases. His strike out rate skyrocketed to 34% as he struck out 165 times to 57 walks (11.7%). 2013 saw him climb another rung up the ladder to AA Northwest Arkansas where he hit .243/.330/.451. He increased his home run output to 19 with 17 doubles, nine triples, and seven stolen bases. Eibner drew 53 walks (10.5%) to 149 strike outs (29.6%), and posted a 120 wRC+ in the Texas League.

The 2014 season was a disaster as he got his first taste of AAA action at the age of 25. He struggled to find his footing and was also knocked out of action with an injury to his abdomen in late June. Across 311 trips to the plate, he hit .241/.317/.380 with just seven homers, 13 walks, and a pair of triples while walking 30 times (9.6%) to 78 strike outs (25.1%). The only silver lining was the drop in his K rate and that he only made two errors in the outfield along with four assists.

Things really turned around for Eibner in 2015. In his second run at the Pacific Coast League, he really broke out with a .303/.364/.514 line, 19 homers, 23 doubles, and 10 stolen bases. He struck out just 79 times (18.3%) and drew 38 walks (8.8%) in his 431 plate appearances, once again improving his strike out rate for the third straight year. He was good for a 131 wRC+ and a .383 wOBA with the help of a career best .338 BABIP. The 6-foot-4 225 pound outfielder spent time in all three outfield positions, registering eight assists while making three errors.

Now we get to the current season where Eibner has spent the majority of his time in Omaha once again, but has also cracked the big leagues for the first time, garnering 85 plate appearances and hitting .231/.286/.423 with three homers and six doubles. In AAA though, he’s hit a robust .288/.385/.516 while launching 11 homers, seven doubles, and five stolen bases in 219 plate appearances. He’s already drawn 30 walks (13.7%) to 48 strike outs (21.9%), and his wRC+ checks in at a career high 136. The Royals have utilized him in the corner outfield spots in his MLB stints, despite his experience in center. Omaha has been deploying him mostly in center with a few more games in right than center. So far he’s shown the best power of his career this season along with working the most walks.

From a scouting perspective, lets look at The 2016 Baseball Prospect Book, as John Sickels notes that "...reports from Omaha observers [are] that he learned to lay off the breaking stuff that flummoxed him in the past. He still runs pretty well, has good power, and is a fine defensive outfielder with a strong arm. The tools have always been there and if the hitting skills took a real step forward, he’s a valuable asset." It appears as if the hitting skills are indeed for real, and he may be on his way to a true break out season soon. There’s no better place to do it than in Oakland where an outfield spot was just vacated when Josh Reddick was sent to the Dodgers. Oakland may want to see him replicate the production at their own AAA affiliate before bringing him up to the Bay Area.

On the other side of the deal we have 26 year old outfielder Billy Burns. A 32nd round selection in the 2011 draft out of Mercer University by the Nationals, Burns spent his first three professional seasons in the Nats organization before being dealt to Oakland for veteran lefty reliever Jerry Blevins in December 2013. Prior to the trade, Burns tore apart High A and AA pitching to the tune of a composite .315/.425/.383 line with an incredible 74 stolen bases with a 91% success rate as a 23 year old. He only had 21 extra base hits in those 540 plate appearances with 12 doubles and nine triples, but he drew 72 walks (13.6%) to just 54 strike outs (10.3%). This was good for a 131 wRC+ and .378 wOBA.

His detractors would point out that his .353 BABIP was unsustainable, especially with a 12.1% line drive rate according to Minor League Central. Those who weren’t high on him would also play the ARL (age relative to league) card; that a legitimate 23 year old prospect should be handling High A and AA pitching like that. His supporters would point to the old adage "you can’t teach speed", along with his defensive value as a ballhawk in center field that could cover vast swaths of real estate.

Unfortunately for Burns, his 2014 season was the exact opposite of his excellent season before. Spending the majority of his time with AA Midland, Burns hit just .237/.315/.302 in 542 PA’s between AA and the final season Oakland had Sacramento as their AAA affiliate. He upped his extra base hit output by five (22 doubles, three triples, and his second career home run), and still stole 54 bases with another impressive 90% success rate. Burns also struck out 84 times (15.5%) to just 53 walks (9.8%). Because of his speed, Oakland brought him up for a cup of coffee at the end of the year where he appeared in 13 games. He logged just six plate appearances, stealing three bases while being caught once.

A return trip to AAA out of spring training meant he began the year with Oakland’s new AAA affiliate in Nashville. Fueled by a .378 average on balls in play, Burns hit .308/.370/.396 in his first 22 games and 101 PA’s. It was enough to get the call to the big leagues where he finished out the year accumulating 555 trips to the plate and a .294/.334/.392 triple slash. A power surge resulted in five home runs for the 5-foot-9 outfielder along with 18 doubles and nine triples. He stole 26 bases with a 76% success rate, drew 26 walks (4.7%) to 81 strike outs (14.6%), and posted a 102 wRC+. In case you were wondering, this too was propped up by a not completely unsustainable BABIP of .339. Advanced defensive metrics graded him out to have been worth four defensive runs saved, and also worth 2.3 fWAR and 2.8 rWAR.

In the current 2016 season, Burns broke camp as the A’s starting center fielder. Unable to satiate the BABIP gods, his triple slash tanked to .233/.269/.302 over 293 plate appearances as his average on balls in play sank to .260, a nearly 80 point drop from 2015. He slapped 11 doubles, four triples, and stole 14 bases with an 82% success rate. He only walked 10 times (3.4%) and punched out a total of 30 times (10.2%) with a 52 wRC+ and a .248 wOBA. Demoted to AAA in July, Burns responded by hitting .293/.326/.317 in 44 PA’s before being dealt at the deadline.

The book on Billy Burns is simple. He’s an aggressive hitter that uses his excellent speed to leg out hits and take extra bases. On the bases, he is a menace with a good ability to read pitchers and the speed to be successful. As a defender he has the speed and range to cover the gaps, but possesses a below average arm. The Royals tend to value these type of players more than the rest of the league (Jarrod Dyson and Paulo Orlando for example), so it makes sense he would be a target of theirs. I really think this is a push trade with each team getting what they put more emphasis on as an organization. Even though both players are on the wrong side of 25, I do still think each could be a regular center fielder in the right situation. Whether those particular situations arise is a different article for a different time.