Andy Burns’s gloves: clockwise from bottom, second base-shortstop, outfield, third base, first base. Photo credit: John Lott
Each afternoon during his recent three-day call-up to the big leagues, Andy Burns walked the tunnel from the clubhouse to the dugout carrying four gloves, tethered with a strap, like a fisherman hauling his catch home for dinner.
He was ready for anything.
“This one,” he told me last week in Philadelphia, “is for third base. This one is for the outfield. This one is for second and short. And this one,” he said, stating the obvious, “is for first base.”
He is also breaking in backups for each one. It makes for a crowded equipment bag.
After inviting him to spring training, where he batted .286 in 25 games, the Blue Jays have called up Burns twice from Triple-A Buffalo, each time to fill a specific – and very brief – roster need. If he ever should make it for an extended stay, his versatility will be his ticket.
“I’m comfortable playing everywhere, and it’s something I really enjoy doing,” he said.
The best player on most teen teams winds up playing shortstop, and Burns filled that role at his Colorado high school. Now 25 and in his sixth season in the Blue Jays’ system, he has played every position except for centre field and catcher. His primary positions have been third base and shortstop.
An 11th-round draft pick in 2011, Burns ventured into utility-man’s land when he played in the Arizona Fall League after the regular season in 2013.
“It started in the fall league as a need,” he said. “We had two third basemen already and a couple middle infielders, and there was a shortage of outfielders and first basemen. They were trying to find a way to get me in the lineup consistently. That’s when I got my feet wet at those positions. Then last year I started playing everywhere.”
That was in Buffalo, after a six-game stint at Double-A New Hampshire. It was also his best year as a hitter. He slashed .293/.351/.372 for the Bisons.
“Last year, after I got called up to Triple-A, with guys going up and down, they needed someone to fill different spots, so it just kind of became my routine – when I get to the field, I see where I’m playing that day,” he said.
He doesn’t have a favourite position. He has played most often at third and short, but says second is perhaps his best fit.
“Second came more naturally to me,” he said. “You have a little more time there and you can set yourself up to get good hops. Third base is a faster position. The ball gets right on top of you fast, so it’s all reaction. Shortstop is a position where you can set up the hop but you’ve got to get rid of the ball quicker. You’ve got to set up the play a little bit better.”
Burns takes pride in his versatility and says he knows it gives him his best chance to making it to The Show.
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’ve put in a lot of work doing it and I want to be the best at doing it.”
Here’s a “most-versatile” list of players in the Blue Jays’ farm system:
JON BERTI: Primarily a second baseman, Berti has also played third base, centre field and four games at shortstop since the Jays drafted him in the 11th round in 2011. Berti, 26, has 199 stolen bases in his five-plus seasons in the Toronto system. He is currently on the disabled list with Double-A New Hampshire.
JASON LEBLEBIJIAN: First, the pronunciation: it’s LEB-leh-BEE-jee-an. A 25th-round pick in 2012, he moves easily among third, second and short. Leblebijian also has played 25 games at first and pitched in two games for Lansing in 2014. He started the season in High-A Dunedin and was recently promoted to New Hampshire, where he has slashed .292/.393/.563 in his first 14 games.
JUSTIN ATKINSON: A native of Surrey, B.C. and an alumnus of the Canadian junior national team, Atkinson was originally a shortstop. He has played first, second, third and short as a pro, and during the lead-up to the 2015 season began a conversion to catcher. The Jays seem uncertain at the moment about his future defensive role. This year in Low-A Lansing, Atkinson has played 25 games as a catcher, 18 at first and five at third. He hit well at Vancouver last year before earning a promotion to Lansing, but has struggled at the plate since then.
SHANE OPITZ: An 11th-round pick in 2010, Opitz is playing shortstop at New Hampshire this year, but during his pro career has also played third and second, and three games in right field.
EMILIO GUERRERO: He’s only 23, but Guerrero is in his sixth pro season. His work on defence has been nomadic and erratic. He started as a third baseman, then moved to shortstop, where he made 34 errors in 2013; gradually switched to the outfield, where he has manned all three positions; and this year is playing mostly at third base again for Dunedin. Guerrero is also enjoying his best offensive year, slashing .280/.324/.488 through Monday’s action.
Special thanks to Jay Blue of BlueJaysFromAway.com for his research assistance for the “most-versatile” list. For my money, he knows more about the Jays’ farmhands than anyone not on the team payroll. He also publishes the annual Toronto Blue Jays Minor League Handbook, which I find indispensable. It’s chock full of details about everyone in the Toronto system.