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HOUSTON – Billy Burns flashed enough potential in spring training that it seemed he’d find himself in the A’s outfield sometime down the road.
That time came quicker than expected, as Burns was a surprise call-up from Double-A Midland on Monday when center fielder Craig Gentry joined the disabled list with a broken right hand.
[RELATED: A's place Gentry on DL, call up Billy Burns]
With Coco Crisp having returned to the Bay Area for an MRI on his injured neck, Oakland suddenly is very thin in center field. To bolster their numbers, they’re turning to Burns, a 24-year-old who’s been one of the fastest players in the entire minor leagues but never has played above Double-A.
“He switch-hits, he plays the position very well. He runs very well,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said before Monday’s series opener at Houston. “We’ll see what he has to offer. This was a guy we gave a lot of at-bats to in spring training for a reason. Couple that with the fact we wanted a center fielder, he was the guy.”
Crisp, bothered by neck soreness for more than two months, got an MRI on Monday, but the A’s hadn’t received the results by the time Melvin addressed the media. To clear a spot for Burns on the 40-man roster, Triple-A outfielder Kenny Wilson was designated for assignment.
Burns, acquired from Washington over the winter for reliever Jerry Blevins, was hitting .250 with one homer and 23 RBI, and he led the Texas League with 51 stolen bases. The hitting numbers aren’t eye-catching, but speed is one thing that translates to any level.
Is Burns ready to contribute in the bigs? Yoenis Cespedes is starting in center Monday night, but Melvin said Burns will likely get the nod against left-handed starters, meaning Wednesday afternoon he might be in the lineup against Dallas Keuchel. He’s also a natural as a pinch runner.
Burns was due to arrive at Minute Maid Park around game time Monday night.
“Probably pretty wide-eyed” was how Melvin described Burns’ likely demeanor for his first call-up.
“So was I. That’s just the way it goes,” the manager said. “But now sitting here, I’m glad that we were able to get him the extended at-bats in spring training. And we started him against front-line guys.”
Burns has been considered somewhat of a project as he only began switch-hitting in 2011. He worked with A’s hitting coach Chili Davis (a switch hitter himself) in the spring and also got tips from Crisp, who had praise for Burns.
The severity of Gentry’s injury caught even him by surprise. He tried to pull the bat back on a bunt attempt in the second inning and was hit on the knuckles. It was somehow ruled a foul ball, and Gentry stayed in but said his hand began hurting him more as the game went on.
X-rays didn’t show anything serious Sunday night but an MRI on Monday showed a non-displaced fracture on the lower part of his hand.
“I was surprised when they told me,” Gentry said.
But a non-displaced fracture is not considered particularly severe, and both Gentry and Melvin expressed optimism he might be able to head out on a rehab assignment after two weeks.
“Where it broke, there’s a lot of blood flow,” Gentry said. “It helps the healing.”
Gentry suffered a non-displaced fracture of his left hand last season while with the Texas Rangers. It happened on the same kind of bunt play (the A’s Jarrod Parker happened to be pitching).
Gentry missed almost exactly a calendar month, which included time spent in the minors on a brief rehab assigment.